Tuesday, September 30, 2008

start bailing

Suppose you and a recent acquaintance rob a bank together. The cops now have you both in separate interrogation rooms. You’ve figured out that they don’t have enough evidence to get you on the robbery charge, but can probably put you away for a couple years on some minor count. The swarthy interrogator waddles into the room and glares at you. “Look,” he says, “we know you two did it. But if you agree to testify that your accomplice was the real perpetrator, we’ll let you go free.”

At first you hesitate, unsure if you should take the deal and condemn your accomplice to a much longer term than would be assigned if you stay quiet. But then you realize that they’re probably right now offering the exact same deal to your accomplice – and if your accomplice takes the deal and you don’t, then you will be the one going away for many years. But, oh yeah, if you both rat each other out, then that will give the cops enough evidence to put you both away for at least a few years.

As many readers know, what I’ve just described is the quintessential prisoner’s dilemma. This structure is common to many social problems. The basic idea is that if all members of a group cooperate, they will achieve some mutually beneficial end. However, a member who defects from the group can expect to achieve a much greater personal benefit, at the expense of the group as a whole. There is then a very strong incentive to not be the sucker who gets left holding the bag when a defector ruins the cooperative project. But if everyone defects, then things turn out pretty badly for everyone. Still, given the expected payoffs, it is usually rational for any individual member to defect.

Today’s failure of the economic bailout bill was a result of prisoner’s dilemma psychology. This prison has 435 inmates, each of whom will face her or his constituents in a few short weeks. Here’s what happened. The bailout bill is extremely unpopular; apparently constituent calls to congressional offices have run 100-to-1 against it. If you’re an incumbent congresscritter facing a tough reelection bid, you really don’t want to be caught voting for this bill. You can just imagine your opponent’s TV ads already: “The incumbent voted to give $700 billion of your money to greedy Wall Street pigs who have already spent it on hookers and blow. Think of how many celebrity magazines you could have bought with that $700 billion! Vote Opponent!” This would be a disaster.

On the other hand, if everyone in Congress votes against the bill and it fails, then the economy will collapse – which is also not a great thing to have on your record while running for reelection. Even if you do win, your congressional pension will be of limited use in our Mad Max future, with its barter economy and roving bands of glassy-eyed marauders.

Of course, what you really want is to be a lone defector, or at least among a small group of defectors. See, you want the bill to pass, so that there is still an economy next week. But you also want to vote against the bill, so that you can tell your constituents you hate rich people as much as they do. An ideal solution is that enough of your idiot colleagues vote for the bill to ensure its passage, while you run against it in your home district. And above all, you don’t want to be the stupid sap who votes for the bill when you could have gotten away with opposing it! What are you, a moron?

Hence the bill’s failure today: too many defectors, not enough cooperators. Want some empirical confirmation of the prisoner’s dilemma explanation? Of the 15 incumbent House members on the Washington Post’s ‘most threatened seats’ list, two-thirds voted against the bill. And among the 27 House members who are running unopposed this year? The exact opposite: two-thirds voted for the bailout. (Among unchallenged incumbent Republicans, Ron Paul is here the sole grumpy exception that proves the rule.)

But all is not lost. There will be another vote later this week, in which we will see the power of the iterated prisoner’s dilemma. This is a variant in which the dilemma is repeated – but only after the cooperators have some chance to punish those who defected the first time round. Expect to see Nancy Pelosi taking away lucrative committee seats from uncooperative Democrats. Who knows what horrors John Boehner may have in store for his recalcitrant partisans. The bill will pass. This economy is too big to fail!

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Ant and Grasshoper: a Modern Fable

Ant lived in a sunny little meadow. All through the summer, he worked dawn to dusk, sawing twigs and cutting leaves, building for himself a modest but sturdy house. What little spare time he had he spent constructing furniture sets, which he sold to the other bugs in the meadow for a few scraps of food, which he then put into storage. Ant’s work was humble, but it was honest. His family – his father, his grandfather, and his 17,000 uncles – had done the same kind of work as far back as anyone could remember.

Next door to Ant lived Grasshopper. Ant did not understand exactly what Grasshopper did all day; she seemed to spend most of her time chatting with visitors lounging in her leaf hammocks (which Ant had made for her, and on which she still owed several delinquent payments). Ant had once heard her offering her visitor some “great returns on sapling-backed securities!”, but his head hurt when he tried to understand these words. Mostly Ant noticed that Grasshopper had lots of fancy stuff.

One night Ant returned home exhausted, after a long day cutting shards of leaf in the forest, and had barely climbed into bed when a shrieking calamity rattled his walls. He rushed out the front door and immediately noticed a five-piece cicada band in full swing outside Grasshopper’s house. Her yard was full of partygoers, bugs of all shapes and sizes, some of whom were plainly not from the sunny meadow. Grasshopper, seeing him staring, leapt over to the twig fence between their yards.

“Hey Ant!” she chirped. “Come on over! I had some nectar flown in from the hive upstream. It’s absolutely vintage. Come meet some of my clients!”

Ant shook his head. “I’m sorry, I need to sleep. I have a lot of work to do tomorrow.”

Grasshopper looked confused, but didn’t press him. “Okay then,” she offered, “good luck with that.”

She gathered her legs to leap away, but suddenly Ant stopped her. “Wait, Grasshopper,” he said. “Can you… would you mind… can you tell me just what it is that you do? I mean, I’m sorry, I know it’s a rude question… but I just can’t figure out how you know all these bugs, and what it is you do for them, you know?”

“Oh, no, of course,” laughed Grasshopper. “It’s not a rude question. To some people all this looks like magic! No, you see, Ant, I offer financial products to investors. I lend leaves and twigs to other bugs for their projects, and they promise to pay me back a little extra later on.”

“Where do you get the leaves and twigs?” Ant asked, still not getting it.

“Oh, well, other bugs lend those to me, because I promise to give them back even more later. You see, Ant, you might say that I bundle together all the twig-and-leaf loans and sell those loans to bugs who have some extra green lying around. I’ve even got a few big institutional investors on board now, like the Termite Union Pension Fund, and the Hive University Capital Campaign.”

“But,” worried Ant, feeling stupid, “what is it that you do?”

“Do?” Grasshopper said, her eyes already back on the party. “I already told you. I bundle the loans and I sell them… and I keep a little for myself.” She winked, nodding her head slightly toward the new palm frond speedboat sitting in her driveway. Then she hopped away, back to a group of giggling mayflies staggering around the nectar pot.


Fall came to the sunny little meadow, and Ant worked even harder to complete a dining room set on order for the Cricket family down the road. But he often found his peaceful work interrupted by shouts from Grasshopper’s yard, as she paced about screaming into her mobile phone. Ant didn’t understand most of it, of course, but it was obvious that she was not happy.

One morning she spent at least three hours arguing with some unseen bug. “Just what are you telling me, Moth?” she growled. “You said I’d have three percent back on the principal by season’s end! You said Old Stump Condos was a sure thing! And you haven’t sold half of the units you’ve bothered to get ready for the market. What the hell are you trying to do to me?”

Ant waited until Grasshopper’s house had been quiet for some time before knocking on the front door. She appeared after a few minutes, compound eyes bloodshot and antennae drooping. “Oh, you,” she sighed. “What do you want?”

Ant stammered slightly. “It’s just… I mean… well, would you happen to have some of the twigs you owe for the hammocks? I’m just trying to balance my accounts before the winter, and you know…”

Grasshopper was looking over him, not at him. “Hammocks? What the hell are you talking about? I owe twenty thou- to Butterfly. The Hive hired Mosquito and Tick, LLP, to go after my assets. You don’t even want to know what the Termite Union has threatened to do to me. And you’re here with something about fucking hammocks?!” She slammed the door before he had time to scuttle out of the way.


At the first frost, Ant began bringing the remainder of his leaf stockpiles into his shed. With each trip by the twig fence, he watched the toys and trinkets in Grasshopper’s yard disappearing, dragged away by wasps from the collections agency. One morning he found the leaf hammocks crumpled in a pile on his front step. Ant had not seen his neighbor for weeks, but he’d heard a rumor that she spent a lot of time at a seedy nectar joint down in the old stump roots.

Ant had worked away most of the afternoon, performing some final winter preparations on his house, when loud thumps echoed from the front door. He opened it to find two enormous beetles looking down on him. One flashed a badge while the other began to read from a crumpled leaf in his left forelimb.

“By order of the Sunny Valley Economic Authority, all landowners are hereby required to lend a minimum of one-third of annual twig-and-leaf income to Grasshopper, effective immediately. Agents of the Authority have license to confiscate said income in the event of noncompliance.” Beetle Number One pronounced this without stopping to breathe or blink.

“But.. -” sputtered Ant, his mandibles agape. “A loan? She’ll never be able to pay it back!”

Beetle Number Two, the (slightly) smaller one, shrugged. “Whatever. Open the shed.”

For the first time in his entire life, Ant thought that maybe, perhaps, the authorities might be getting it wrong. “But I worked so hard all year. I earned all of this. I didn’t take any silly risks! This isn’t – this isn’t fair!”

Beetle Number Two made a face as if someone had just asked what was really so bad about spiders. “Are you a moron?” he inquired, apparently rhetorically. “This is nothing about ‘fair’. At least a half dozen downmeadow leaf banks bought major bundled loans from Grasshopper. Do you want to see thousands of bugs lose their accounts overnight? Should the twig industry just close up shop? Here’s ‘fair’ for you, idiot: Grasshopper is just too big to fail. Now open the fucking shed.”


It was a hard, long winter that year, but the sunny little meadow made it through, just as it always did. On a gorgeous spring morning Ant emerged from his house, feeling a little bit hungry, but otherwise ready to start on a new season’s labors. This year, he decided, he would start building rocking chairs.

But Ant had barely passed the twig fence before discovering an incredible sight. There was Grasshopper, sitting in her front yard with a small cadre of aphids. As he drew closer he heard Grasshopper wrapping up an important discussion. “Right, good,” she declared. “So ten-per on the first yield, twenty-per on the second. I’ll float the interest for two months, but after that it goes compound. Agreed?” The aphids nodded their tiny heads in unison.

“Hey, Ant!” Grasshopper said, turning to him. “Come join us, come have some sprouts – they’re fresh from the ground!”

Ant immediately thought that the sprouts could have grown into large, rich plants if they’d been left alone. He thought about all the climbing he needed to do today, seeing as how only the higher leaves would have appeared this early in the season. “I’m sorry,” he explained, “work…”

Grasshopper looked hurt. “Oh, come on Ant, you can spare a few minutes.”

Ant thought about the long climb up the tree trunk. He thought about his empty shed. He thought about the way Beetle Number One had shoved him out of the way after he unlocked the door. Then Ant sat down with Grasshopper and her aphid guests.

“Awesome,” said Grasshopper. “Have some sprouts!” The sprouts were indeed fresh and juicy, straight out of the ground. “Oh, hey, Ant, I have an opportunity for you, courtesy of these fine aphid folks. Now did you know that potato buds are edible? And tasty too! We’re going to open up a whole patch…”

Several hours later, the business meeting had morphed into a minor but persistent party. Nectar appeared from somewhere; the aphids were dancing with some lice. Grasshopper sat at the center of it all, trading gossip and jokes with bugs of every shape, size, and degree of fiscal solvency.

Ant felt slightly giddy, for he’d had just a little nectar. So he didn’t notice Grasshopper approaching until she stood right beside him, looking back over the swaying party.

“Hey Ant,” Grasshopper started. “You know, I think it’s great that you’re loosening up a bit, really.” She looked away for a moment, then kept her eyes on the ground. “But, well, if you’re here with us, well, who is out harvesting the twigs and leaves?”

Ant thought for a moment, glancing up into the shiny spring sun’s warm effluence. “I don’t know,” he shrugged. “Someone else.”

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Why I don't read political blogs anymore

What a field-day for the heat
A thousand people in the street
Singing songs and carrying signs
Mostly say, hooray for our side

-Buffalo Springfield, “For What It’s Worth”

September and leaves are already falling, only slightly less rapidly than the standards of civic decency.

Something unusual has happened recently: I’ve stopped enjoying politics. For someone who began watching C-SPAN at age 12, this is a bit of a traumatic self-discovery. Admittedly, my political enthusiasm has always been tempered with a lumpy dose of irritated cynicism, but lately this has flared into actual distress. Especially on the internets: it’s gotten so that I need only glimpse the name ‘McCain’ or (especially) ‘Palin’ anywhere in a blog post and I begin cringing in anticipatory revulsion.

Let’s be utterly clear about what I’m now to say: I fully acknowledge that the haters of Obama et al. are just as capable of vomiting clouds of uncharitable abuse into the aether. But I don’t know those people. I don’t read their diatribes, half-truths, their hooded jeremiads. Doubtlessly I would find their claptrap equally disturbing, if not more so, were I to encounter it. But I don’t run in those circles.

Instead I read insinuations that John McCain has lost higher cognitive function, that Sarah Palin is a ruthless moron, that anyone who would even consider voting Republican cannot be anything but the most foolish, vile, degenerate specimen of proto-human. Political discussions seem nothing more than contests amongst ideological clones to offer the most nastily emotive expression of hatred for their mutual enemy, a great echo chamber for badly-informed belligerent self-righteousness.

Living as I do on the great blue isle of Manhattan, my encounters with such attitudes are not confined to the web. At a picnic a couple weeks ago, one guest laughingly remarked of McCain that “crashing your plane on your very first mission doesn’t qualify you to be president!” The audience chuckled, but I did not: “After that plane crashed, McCain was stomped, beaten, and stabbed by the locals, was handed over to guards who systematically tortured him for years, and refused early release out of fear for how this would affect those left behind. No matter what you think of John McCain, you do not mock him for anything even remotely connected to this incident.” I didn’t say quite all that, being insufficiently spontaneously punchy. But I said some of it, and wish I’d said all.

Demonizing conservatives has become one of the few expressions of prejudice still acceptable in tolerant communities. Yet it’s still nothing more than the ancient ritual of ostracism, the union of a group of people through their mutual effort to pointedly deny even the signifiers of simple decency to a ceremonially designated Other. Justifications will be proffered, reasons frantically thrust forward, rhetorical covers drawn over the ugly primal motives thundering below. Fine. But when you write that you “hate Republicans” and enjoy the approving comments, bear in mind the spiritual kinship that verb forms between you and earlier groups who have bonded by hating those outside the bond.

The right has been a bit too gleeful in its seizure of Barack Obama’s unwise statement about “bitter” middle American voters who “cling to guns or religion”. Yet there is something of substance here. Obama’s comment reveals a disturbing myopia (in himself and his liberal San Francisco audience), a smug inability to appreciate that others’ refusal to share one’s views may be motivated by anything beyond the most base or foolish instincts. Republican voters are not grimy caricatures or hoodwinked yokels. They are real people with real concerns, real values, real perspectives on a world that can bear the weight of more than one conception of human existence. If you find yourself completely incapable of empathizing with them, then that is your failing, not theirs.

In the end much of the offensive materials could be explained by a few concepts from psychology: confirmation bias, ‘my side’ bias, correspondence bias. Over and over, when I see blog posts enthusiastically declaring that the latest McCain gaffe or Palin revelation shows the Republicans to be indubitably unfit for office, I just know that these same bloggers would dismiss as irrelevant these same mishaps, had they been committed by Obama or Biden. Perhaps what most pains me is watching this election season reduce otherwise fair and nuanced observers to binary detectors whose tunnel vision is sensitive only to the variable of party affiliation.

All that said, I don’t expect anyone to cease the partisan gesticulation on my account. Whatever it is – catharsis, distraction, social totem – it plainly has a purpose for its authors. But my reserves of effortful indifference and prudent selective illiteracy are approaching their end; I cannot read much more. And it is only September.