Thursday, November 06, 2008

Why I support NOT supporting President Obama.

OR: Politics, Prisoners & Iterated Games

I'll try to make this brief. [Much later: HA!] Barack Obama won the Presidency last Tuesday, and now the opposition has to decide how to react to him. Victor David Hanson offers a well considered and even tempered point of view:

It seems to me that conservatives have a golden opportunity to offer criticism and advice in a manner that many liberals did not during the last eight years. By that I mean I hope there are no conservative versions of the Nicholson Baker Knopf-published ‘novel’ Checkpoint, the creepy documentary by Gerald Range, the attempt to name a sewer plant after an American President, or the celebrity outbursts that we have witnessed with the tired refrain of Hitler/Nazi Bush—that all have cheapened political discourse. When I hear a partisan insider like Paul Begala urging at the 11th hour that we now rally around lame-duck Bush in his last few days, I detect a sense of apprehension that no Democrats would wish conservatives to treat Obama as they did Bush for eight years. [H/T: Glenn Reynolds]
All very charitable and grown up. Also mostly wrong. For the last eight years, with the exception of about one month, Republicans and conservatives have been getting savaged by Democrats and leftists. No charge has been too scurrilous for these people to pass up, everything from the 9/11 Truthers who think Bush personally planned the 9/11 attacks from his ranch in Crawford, to the more recent attacks on Sarah Palin, which have included attacks on her children and unborn grandchild.

These attacks should not be rewarded by courtesy from the new minority party.

Game theory helps explain the situation. Consider the Prisoner's Dilemma:
[I]magine two criminals arrested under the suspicion of having committed a crime together. However, the police does not have sufficient proof in order to have them convicted. The two prisoners are isolated from each other, and the police visit each of them and offer a deal: the one who offers evidence against the other one will be freed. If none of them accepts the offer, they are in fact cooperating against the police, and both of them will get only a small punishment because of lack of proof. They both gain. However, if one of them betrays the other one, by confessing to the police, the defector will gain more, since he is freed; the one who remained silent, on the other hand, will receive the full punishment, since he did not help the police, and there is sufficient proof. If both betray, both will be punished, but less severely than if they had refused to talk. The dilemma resides in the fact that each prisoner has a choice between only two options, but cannot make a good decision without knowing what the other one will do.
Interestingly, if the game is played once, then rational decision makers would always defect. Thus, if both prisoners are rational, they will get a sub-optimal outcome - both will serve time, although for reduced sentences. But if both are irrational, they can co-operate and thus avoid serious punishment. Yes, one can get sub-optimal outcomes even if everyone is a rational actor.

A more interesting case arises from the Iterated Prisoner's Dilemma. In this game, the Prisoner's Dilemma is repeated an indeterminate number of times, with each player having knowledge of at least the previous outcome. Ultimately, if both players NEVER defect, they will achieve the best outcome. However, there is always a temptation to defect. It turns out that one of the best strategies is "Tit-for-Tat" - cooperate on the first round of play, and then repeat whatever your opponent does. Thus, if your opponent defected last round, you defect this round.

There are better strategies, but this one is the best "simple" strategy for the IPD.

Now back to the current situation. This isn't the Iterated Prisoner's Dilemma, but it bears some similarities:
  • we're stuck with the other side, and they with us
  • the political system has periodic elections, thus iterative
  • we have no idea how they will behave (either now, or in some imagined future when they're in the minority)
  • but we do know how they have behaved in the past.
The prime difference is that no outside arbiter exists to mete out a set amount of sentences/punishments. You may think at first that "Reality" plays the roll of the policeman, but that isn't so. The policeman is offering a set amount of punishment, to be meted out according to the rules of the game. Reality doesn't care about the rules, nor about a set amount of punishment. In the "real world", we can all behave completely cooperatively, and still get punished. The magnitude of the punishment can far exceed the magnitude of the crime, or we can even be punished if we do nothing but good works. This is the "Life Ain't Fair" Rule writ LARGE.

But that still leaves us with an iterated game to play. And I suggest that there are a certain amount of set punishments that we dole out to ourselves. Mainly this - everyone feels worse when we have higher levels of vitriol and rancor. If we choose to completely cooperate and the other guys did too, then we could all have nice civil disagreements about policy. But we just played this game, and the other side didn't cooperate. In fact, they went about as far as they could short of armed insurrection. (That may be because our side has all the guns.)

I mentioned earlier that "Tit-for-Tat" is the optimal simple strategy for the IPD. There are better, more complicated strategies. Among them is "Tit-for-Tat with forgiveness". In this strategy, if one player defects, the other player sometimes cooperates the next round anyway. This allows for a recovery from an endless cycle of defections.

We could take a chance on civility, and cooperate this time. However, I don't think that's optimal. For one thing it will require a lot of us to swallow not only our own bile, but to have to mop up the bile of the other side for them, and that just ain't right. Furthermore the Democrats now have a virtual lock on the federal government. There is no reason for them to play nice now, and cooperating on all matters will simply look like rolling over and playing dead. Even couching our disagreements in polite terms will make us look like supplicants begging for scraps.

No, if we have any hope of opposing Obama and the Dems, we have to make a forceful, sharp case. That means a certain level of viciousness. I suggest that we go after them with both bores blazing, with these exceptions

First, leave their strictly personal lives out of it. So, where they trashed the Bush daughters, we never mention Obama's daughters. Where they made fun of Bush's ears (Chimpy BusHitler), we will refrain from mentioning that Obama's ears are also silly. Spouses are a slightly different matter. If the spouse stays out of political affairs, then hands off. If Michelle Obama turns out to be more like Hillary Clinton, then all is fair so long as we follow the rules above. All criticisms of spouses should be strictly about matters that actually pertain to public life. (Actually these rules can apply to grown children who have entered the arena - Biden's lobbyist son, for example.)

Secondly, keep the absolute lunacy to a minimum. Thus, if another terrorist attack occurs on American soil, then we shouldn't accuse Obama of being behind it. Moon-bat-ery should be held in check as much as possible.

But on political matters, hammer them. Call them out for corruption, malfeasance, and bad policy, and be nasty about it. Challenge their philosophy in scathing terms. Be willing to spew some bile. Where tone is concerned, it's not just the least we can do, it's the best we can do.


Hurricane Heather said...

Mr. Cups says that curiously, he looks like Curious George. But we can't say that out loud.

Tom Strong said...

Strategically, you're quite right; one of the quirks of tit-for-tat and related strategies is that they only support reactive, rather than proactive cooperation.

Which is why bipartisanship has generally been the exception rather than the rule in our history. In most eras, the minority party has returned to power based on strong opposition, not compromise.