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GeoPol, the White House & Game Theory in the New Yorker

Wednesday, July 4th, 2018

[ by Charles Cameron — popularizing game theory as a means of understanding significant currents in world affairs ]
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You may pick up a few details about the origins of game theory and Prisoners Dilemma, but apart from that, the basic outlines offered by two Bew Yorker articles won’t contain too many surprises. What’s interesting is the role the New Yorker plays as a disseminator of knowledge: game theory, if I may put it this way, is joining the wider conversation.

**

In May this year, the New Yorker carried John Cassidy‘s piece, How Game Theory Explains the Leaks in the Trump White House.

Here’s the game theoretical background:

In 1950, Albert Tucker, a mathematician at Princeton, gave a talk to a group of Stanford psychologists about the rapidly developing science known as game theory. To illustrate one of his arguments, he invented a story about two criminals who had been arrested for a crime they had committed jointly.

In the story, the police interrogate the two prisoners separately. The prisoners have no means of communicating with each other, but they both understand that, if they each deny the crime, they will be charged with a much less serious offense, which carries a short prison sentence (one year, say). If they both confess, they will get a heavier punishment (five years). If one confesses to the crime and the other insists that he is innocent, the one who confesses will be let off, and his accomplice will get an even heavier punishment (ten years). Tucker posed the question: Should the men confess or deny?

When first confronted with this story, many people think that both criminals should insist on their innocence and escape with a minor conviction. The problem is that mutual denial isn’t consistent with individual self-interest. Take the first prisoner. If he believes that his accomplice is going to deny the crime, he can confess and get off scot-free. If he believes that his accomplice is going to confess, he should certainly confess, too, or he will end up receiving the heaviest punishment of all. In the language of game theory, confessing is a “dominant strategy.” Regardless of which strategy the other players adopt, it is the most rational option to choose. But it ends up producing a bad outcome for both players: five years in prison. If they had both stuck to mutual denial, they would have got just one year.

Then, the political application:

What does all this have to do with the Trump White House? Quite a lot, it turns out.

The issue is White House leaks, and game theory can explain the why of them:

Ever since Trump became President, the White House has leaked like a sieve. “The leaks come in all shapes and sizes: small leaks, real-time leaks, weaponized leaks, historical leaks,” Jonathan Swan, Axios’s White House correspondent, wrote this week. “Sensitive Oval Office conversations have leaked, and so have talks in cabinet meetings and the Situation Room. You name it, they leak it.” Mike Allen, Swan’s colleague at Axios, says, “we learn more about what’s going on inside the Trump White House in a week than we did in a year of the George W. Bush presidency.”

That may well be true, and game theory provides one explanation. By deliberately creating a factionalized, dog-eat-dog culture inside the White House, one that mimics how he ran his business and the premise of his reality-television show, Trump has turned the people who work for him into White House versions of the prisoners in Tucker’s story. With this in mind, it is to be expected that so many White House staffers would take actions that are damaging to the Administration, such as leaking explosive information.

One description of the internal conflicts in the WHite House:

“You have to realize that working here is kind of like being in a never-ending ‘Mexican Standoff,’ ” a White House official explained to Swan. “Everyone has guns (leaks) pointed at each other and it’s only a matter of time before someone shoots. There’s rarely a peaceful conclusion so you might as well shoot first.”

The questionably named Mexican standoff, in which several bandits with guns confront each other at close quarters, is just another version of the prisoners’ dilemma. Imagine yourself in the unfortunate position of being a White House official. If you believe your rivals are about to leak some damaging information, getting it out first is a rational form of self-defense. But, even if you don’t think a rival leak is coming, there is an incentive to spread damaging information about your opponents. Just like confessing, leaking is a dominant strategy.

So, Mexican Standoff, Prisoners Dilemma. The impossible solution?

In terms of game theory, you need to alter the rewards and punishments that individual staffers perceive to be attached to their actions, so that coöperation, rather than backstabbing, emerges as an equilibrium strategy.

And Cassidy’s conclusiom:

The prisoners’ dilemma illustrates how the process works. But, in this case, it could be renamed the Trump dilemma. He created it.

**

Okay, the second New Yorker piece, by Adam Davidson, Is Michael Cohen Turning on Donald Trump? — dated July 2nd, which triggered this post:

Trump’s former attorney Michael Cohen appears to be playing out the Prisoner’s Dilemma with the President in the most public and consequential way possible.

The most famous game-theory formula was developed in 1950, by two mathematicians, Melvin Dresher and Merrill Flood. But it was only later that another mathematician gave it the catchy name that made it famous: the Prisoner’s Dilemma. The idea is simple: two accused criminals have been arrested and are being interrogated separately. If they both stay silent, they’ll both get a year in jail. But, if one rats out the other, he could get away scot-free while his accomplice would spend three years in jail. The optimal outcome, in terms of total time served, is for both to remain silent. But, as Drescher and Flood posited, there is enormous likelihood that each will rat out the other. There are endless variations of the formula, tweaking the costs and benefits of silence and confession, but the core insight remains: if two people whose interests are mutually dependent on the actions of the other don’t fully trust each other, and don’t have the opportunity to secretly coördinate, they will end up behaving in ways that hurt both of them.

President Donald Trump and his former attorney Michael Cohen are currently playing out the Prisoner’s Dilemma in the most public and consequential way possible

That’s enough to get you started.

**

And my motive for writing this post? As I said in On two, one, seven plus or minus, and ten – towards infinity:

When I worked as senior analyst in a tiny think-shop, my boss would often ask me for an early indicator of some trend. My brain couldn’t handle that — I always needed two data points to see a pattern, and so I coined the mantra for myself, two is the first number.

These twin New Yorker articles mark a tidal level in the dissemination of knowledge: political scientists andd strategists already know this stuff, but the New Yorker now feels that bright orchestral musicians, humanities teachers, and media mavens, charity workers and foreign affairs correspondents — a few quick guesses at their readership, which must be large and various — are ready and thirsty to add it to their cconceptual vocabulary. That’s a quietly interesting marker in itself.

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Oh ah, the New Yorker on July 2 also had a piece titled Will North Korea Play Nuclear Hide-and-Seek with Trump?. I suppose I’d best be on the loookout for other hide-and-seek references. Irony, n’dst ce pas?.

Wittgenstein’s language games and the public sphere

Monday, May 7th, 2018

[ by Charles Cameron — suggesting a lessening of TV Trumpery and its critiques ]
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In a tweet earliee today, I suggested that the close reading of a text can be highly rewarding, a point I made most forcefully in Close reading, Synoptic- and Sembl-style, for parallels, patterns.

Key to a close reading is the “language” in which a given writer or speaker clothes their words.. “language” here being used both in the sense of their metaphors and forms (which is why I’ve been collecting sports and other metaphors, ouroboroi and other forms) and in the sense formulated by Witty Wittgenstein in his Philosophical Investigations (PI).

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy offers us a list of regular language games as Wittgenstein uses the term in PI:

reporting an event, speculating about an event, forming and testing a hypothesis, making up a story, reading it, play-acting, singing catches, guessing riddles, making a joke, translating, asking, thanking

I want to suggest that we could usefully think of language games in terms of the philosophical, ideological, partisan, religious or psychological drivers that propel them.

Further, in the case of Trump, we might observe that the language game he is playing is not the one his critics on, say, MSNBC, are basing their own critiques on.

And here’s the great advantage: once we’ve analyzed the differences between Trump’s language game and aims and those of his critics, we could close shop. We wouldn’t need this constant barrage of Fox and MSNBC news on the topic — any new utterance of his or Giulianis of note could simply be indexed to the sub-para describing that particular disjunction in language game, and basta! — the rest of the news “oxygen” would be available for the discussion of other topics.

As a subset of that para — I don’t suppose Mueller xxwill want to take every piece of “off the cuff” Trumpery as intended as real “truth” — “all that is the case” –he’ll surely see it as entertainment and distraction — chuff and chaff — and zero in on the key statements of the President’s worldview, viewing them as exemplars not of “truth” but of a language game to be analyzed and evaluated as such. Having zeroed in on these relatively few key phrases, many of the many critiques offered by Trump’s accusers.

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Wittgenstein asks what all that we consider to be games have in common, and decides they share a family resemblance but — in my words, here — the cousins on one side of the family have little (a polite word for “nothing”) in common with the cousins at the other end of thr spectrum.

If the Olympic Games included language games in their list of sports, Giuliani‘s reference to FBI agents as stormtroopers wight win long jump gold.

Here’s Jonathan Chait in Giuliani’s FBI ‘Stormtroopers’ Smear Is the Key to Trump’s Authoritarian Mind-set”>:

In 1995, National Rifle Association president Wayne LaPierre signed his name to a fundraising letter referring to Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agents as “tjack-booted government thugs.” The implicit association of American federal law enforcement with fascists provoked a furor. Former president George H. W. Bush publicly resigned his NRA membership in protest; LaPierre had to apologize.

Last night, in the midst of a long, deeply incriminating interview, Rudy Giuliani called FBI agents “stormtroopers.” Here was the president’s lawyer, not an outside lobbyist, comparing federal law enforcement to Nazis directly, rather than indirectly.

Stormtrooper vs jack-booted government thugs is an interesting comparison (& makes a fine DoubleQuote), and Chait’s “implicit association of American federal law enforcement with fascist” in hth cases exemplify just the kind of language extremism we should be avoiding in our policy debates.

Chait’s continuing half-paragraph illminates the arcane workings of the media machine in processing such things:

The Washington Post’s account of Giuliani’s interview noted the remark in a single sentence, in the 30th paragraph of its story. The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and Politico accounts of Giuliani’s interview did not even mention the stormtrooper remark at all.

There are times I wish for sanity.

**

Okay, that was third and last in this series.. Previously:

  • On negative space in the painting..
  • On negative space, private morality in the public square
  • This:

  • Wittgenstein’s language games and the public sphere
  • Playing politics and other games, &c

    Thursday, January 25th, 2018

    [ by Charles Cameron — how shall we frame this last week in Washington? ]
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    Sapir-Whoff, George Lakoff, Carl Jung:

    I’m a firm believer of some version of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis to the effect that it’s hard for us to think thoughts when the necessary vocabulary is not available to us — so that while an expert surfer can distinguish maybe 50 different kinds of waves by name, the rest of us can only manage to discern maybe five or six types. I also think, with George Lakoff, author of Don’t Think of an Elephant!, that the metaphorical framings we use has enormous impact on our conversations — so that liberals framing things in terms of the “nurturing mother” contrasting with conservatives framing in terms of the “stern father” — or DACA people being “kids who, through no fault of their own” are in this country, vs “illegal immigrants” — will tend to win or lose depending on which of those framings has the most powerful resonance among voters. Finally, I’m in agreement with Carl Jung that certain deep patterns in the unconscious, which he termed “archetypes”, have a basis in instinct [CW 6, par. 765], are explored in myth and the arts, and have extraordinary profundity and depth — so that generations are moved by the story of St Eustace out hunting, meeting a stag with the crucified between his antlers, from Albrecht Durer and Pisanello to John Fowles [in The French Lieutenant’s Woman, The Tree, and The Ebony Tower] and Russell Hoban [in Riddley Walker].


    Pisanello, Fowles and Durer

    Some words and metaphorical phrasings, then, are of significant importance. It is for that reason, then, that I’ve tried to keep abreast of at least a few of the play and game metaphors that have surfaced in the course of the last few days, while I’ve been stuck in bed without the internet, and with only the TV — and no rewind button — to keep me abreast of events.

    **

    Game and play metaphors, early:

    These were the metaphors and framings I caught during my first three or four days without internet.

    Reince Priebus was the one I caught using the phrase “play politics”, and White House OMB Director Mick Mulvaney said Senator Chuck Schumer “needs to up his game”. But if politics is a game politicians play, it’s a bipartisan game — both parties toss the term “game-changers” about freely, and each plays “the blame game” against the other. Indeed, Chuck Todd of Meet the Press sais “the blame game is what the two parties do best”, and Mitch McConnell said “When all the games stop, the issues are still there.” It might be nice to have no more games, with only the issues “in play”. Meanwhile, the President “has watched all this play out..”

    There are, however, many more specific game and play references to be found in recent news reports, and they’re more inventive, more interesting than the generalized game references I’ve noted above. I’ll do my best to identify whatever I managed to note down, though it’s hard for me to keep track of all the details while stuck in bed watching TV. Here goes:

    Chris Matthews said “I think [Sen Schumer] has all the cards.

    Jennifer Rubin (WaPo) said someone, likely President Trump, “bounces around like a ping-pong ball in a wind tunnel”.

    Steve Schmidt compared a politician to “Charlie Brown and Lucy with the football.”

    Someone on Meet the Press said the shutdown was “the Fight Club vs the Waffle House” I’m not sure which is which, nor who’s the winner here.

    Brian Williams to Nicole Wallace: “As you delicately put it, the President plays whack-a-mole rather than chess”.

    **

    later part of the week:

    Senator Graham’s suggestion to Democrats then currently in negotiation, after discussing ways in which the Republican position has been evolving: “don’t overplay your hand.”

    Another term I’ve heard tonight drawn from Bridge (think “Double No Trumps” and from other card games: “The president has been the wild card here”.

    Someone, The Dems “must play the hand they have”

    Better, delightfully punning, the New Yorker: “Jared Kushner Is China’s Trump Card“.

    Garrett Haake: “The House has always been the heavier lift for the Democrats..”

    Here’s a refreshing game-metaphorical novelty from Garrett Haake to Kasie Hunt: “It’s a waiting game, Kasie”.

    Rep Charlie Dent to Katie Tur: “The Queen of the Hill strategy“. Charlie Dent has used this phrase before, FWIW.

    And someone on MSNBC: “DACA is the football”.. Come to that, Fort Smith DACA recipient feels like ‘political football’. Ashley Parker, observing comings and goings on the Senate floor: “This is how I watch football games.. I don’t know how to help, I don’t really understand what’s going on.” Leigh Ann Caldwell: “They’re going to go and huddle and see if it’s enough” and (maybe someone else) “instead of kicking the can down the road”. Best football ref? “Pelosi, Dems accuse GOP of moving goal posts on DACA deal“.

    Regarding the Mueller investigation, Michael Steele used Shakespearean phrasing, telling Hallie Jackson: “Of all the players and actors in this drama, Sessions is the weakest link.”

    Ari Melber, comparing the loyalty Trump appears to look for in his AG and senior FBI officers with Christopher Wray‘s reasons for threatening to resign if Andrew McCabe is removed: “He was threatening over the same ballpark”.

    Tony Perkins, explaining thatt the Evangellical Right will no longer support Trump if he reverts to his earlier behaviors (eg his affair with a porn star), “Tony Perkins: Trump Gets ‘a Mulligan’ on Life, Stormy Daniels“: “We kind of gave him—‘All right, you get a mulligan. You get a do-over here,” Perkins told me.. “You know, you only have two cheeks,” Perkins says.

    Lawrence O’Donnell discussing the government shutdown and his own times working in the Senate past midnight, saying there are often few options, none of them entirely satisfactory: “It’s usually a toss up”.

    Carol Leonnig: “Trump’s lawyers have been squaring off” with Mueller.

    Chuck Schumer before the final Senate vote to re-open the government: “The great deal-making President sat on the sidelines.”

    After the vote: “The White House chose to take an aggressive victory lap.”

    2020? “A far left and far right race?”

    A touch of game theory, late Sunday night: “But the Democrats’ strategy in Washington’s latest game of “shutdown chicken” has some important data behind it — at least as the numbers currently sit.”

    Chris Matthews won my prize for best paradox when he came up with “High Noon at midnight” — that’s not a game reference of course, but then Matthews is the guy whose program is called “Hardball”. And Ari Melber gets kudos for “eleven is the new ten” — brilliant, if you know the Spinal Tap “eleven” reference, and don’t think it’s about George Clooney and “Ocean’s Eleven”.

    And BTW, is “running for office” an athletics reference? Runners from sprints to the marathon at the Olympics might think so.. Come to that, I’ve seen this whole protracted negotiation around the government shutdown referred to as a “marathon” — a weekend of marathon closed-door negotiations on Capitol Hill to reopen the government, Rolling Stone — so there’s a game ref there after all.

    **

    Yesterday:

    MTP: “the durability of institutions doesn’t matter to people in the ballgame.” DId I get that right?

    Ari Melber: “we are going towards the red zone.” Yup.

    Ari Melber, again: “You’ve been in these things — we call them scrums.” I’m not sure whether tjat’s a direct Rugby reference, it may come via the business methodology of that name…

    Chris Matthews: “You’re losing a game of checkers, you’re losing a game, you break the board”. I may be able to get this one in context when the transcript becomes availale tomorrow — watch this space.

    Carol Leonnig: “The President speaks in the language of a pugilist.” I googled “Carol Leonnig pugilist” to see if there was a transcript yet, and google supplied quotes from Leonnig about Barbara Boxer. Close, close.

    Meanwhile, Trump: “Now they’re saying, “Oh, well, ‘Did he fight back? Did he fight back?’ You fight back, ‘Oh, it’s obstruction.’ So, here’s the thing: I hope so.” That’s pugilist talk, I think.

    Someone, about the negotiations between Mueller and Trump’s attorneys, after the President said he’s looking forward to speaking with Mueller: “This doesn’t help if they wanted to start with a low bid.”

    Brian Williams to Philip Bump of WaPo: “This isn’t your first rodeo eitther.” That one took me by surprise! Ride’em, cowboy!

    **

    Today, Trump is in Davos, and I’m still in bed, in recovery. I’ll bet there are some weak imstances here, but the overall use of sports metaphors is overwhelming — no other framing comes close. There are likely some typos here too — blame my meds, okay?

    Your crazed-looking friend:

    Charles…

    Let’s talk!

    David Ronfeldt: Readings on tribes & tribalism

    Tuesday, August 8th, 2017

    [ by Charles Cameron — a catch-up post ]
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    Despite his modest comments to the contrary, David Ronfeldt has in fact been posting up a storm on his Materials for Two Theories blog, bringing us up to date with his readings on tribalism as the key aspect of his TIMN (tribes, hierarchical institutions, markets, and networks) theory.

    Just as I keep harping on the significance of — and our tendency to overlook — religious and particularly apocalyptic drivers across a range of problematic issues, so David relentlessly points to the significance of — and our tendency to overlook — tribalism as a key form in understanding many of those same issues.

    **

    Most recent:

    David’s two most recent posts are of particular interest.

    #14: Richard Landes’s “How Thinking Right Can Save the Left” (2015)

    Richard Landes, in addition to his encyclopedic work on apocalyptic matters, is the proponent of a game theoretical approach to the Israeli-Pakestinian question with considerable overlap with David’s focus on tribalism — regarding the core issue as that of a clash between zero-sum and win-win players, in which concessions made by the win-win player, in expectation of reciprocal concessions, are taken as victories, requiring no re ciprocation, by the zero-sum player.

    I hope I got that right, albeit in very simplified / condensed form

    #15: Mark Weiner’s “The call of the clan: why ancient kinship and tribal affiliation still matter in a world of global geopolitics” (2013)

    Mark Weiner‘s entry is the one which comes closest to David’s TIMN work, and David accordingly uses parallels as a means of outside confirmation of certain of his own insights.

    **

    The full monte:

    Here, for your convenience, are David’s recent tribalism posts — some items deal specifically with America, one with Britain, and others are more general, but I have grouped them all together in the order of posting since David issued them as a numbered series:

  • Intro and #1: Sabrina Tavernise, “One country, two tribes” (2017)
  • #2: David Roberts, “Donald Trump and the rise of tribal epistemology” (2017
  • #3: Daniel Shapiro, “Modern tribes – the new lines of loyalty” (2008)
  • #4: Charlie Sykes, “Where the Right Went Wrong” (2016)
  • #5: Ben Shapiro, “The Revenge of Tribalism” (2016)
  • #6: Robert Reich, “The New Tribalism and the Decline of the Nation State” (2014)
  • #7: Glenn Harlan Reynolds, “Politicians benefit from American tribal warfare” (2014)
  • #8: Jonathan Haidt & Ravi Iyer, “How to Get Beyond Our Tribal Politics” (2016)
  • #9: Deepak Chopra, “After Trump, What Will It Take To Heal?” (2016)
  • #10: Jalaja Bonheim, “Why We Love Trump” (2016)
  • #11: NeoTribes, “NeoTribal Emergence” (2016)
  • #12: Ross Douthat, “The Myth of Cosmopolitanism” (2016)
  • #13: Kenan Malik, “Britain’s Dangerous New Tribalism” (2015)
  • #14: Richard Landes’s “How Thinking Right Can Save the Left” (2015)
  • #15: Mark Weiner’s “The call of the clan: why ancient kinship and tribal affiliation still matter in a world of global geopolitics” (2013)
  • Sunday surprise — Go on

    Sunday, July 23rd, 2017

    [ by Charles Cameron — zen mind, beginner’s mind, math mind, game mind ]
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    Pi:

    A Beautiful Mind:


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