Thursday, January 31, 2019

Not Every Victory is a Victory

The title of this piece was quoted to me by a friend. We were discussing a situation that seems common these days: a public negotiation that has become a game of Chicken.

For those not familiar with the game-theory construct of Chicken, it's a two-player game in which each side tries to get the other to concede first. The typical narrative is two cars racing towards each other head-on. The loser is the one that swerves out of the way first to avoid a collision. One "wins" at Chicken by convincing the other side that your side is willing to risk total destruction if you don't get your way. In game theory matrix terms, Chicken looks like this:

If one player swerves (gives in) and the other doesn't, there's a clear winner and a clear loser. If both swerve, there's a tie but neither wins anything. Both continuing straight ends in disaster.

The recent budget negotiation between Congress (in particular, Congressional Democrats) and the White House could be modeled this way. Indeed, many did characterize the period of the shutdown as just this kind of test of wills - who would "swerve" first? And it seems that both sides saw themselves as engaged in Chicken, as both engaged in various commitment behaviors to try to convince the other side of their willingness to risk a Crash.

In this narrative, the Democrats "won" and the President "lost", because he was seen as swerving first (by agreeing to reopen the government without border wall funding). This game may get replayed again in three weeks - we'll see what happens in the next round, if there is one.

On the local level, I've been watching a similar Chicken game at my former employer. Tenure-track faculty (represented by an AAUP chapter) have gone on strike against what they regard as an unfair, imposed contract (18 months of negotiations failed to produce an agreement). Both sides have dug in, although the last couple of days have seen negotiations that may bear fruit.

The problem with applying the Chicken game framework to real-world situations isn't that it doesn't capture the dynamics of the two sides. The artificial model misses out on important parts of reality. Two real-world dynamics, in particular, are missing from the matrix. And when we forget about these things, then what we might think of as a victory really isn't.

First, as with most game-theory constructs the Chicken payoff matrix is set up as a single-play game. The "racing cars" metaphor is a one-time event - players play, there's an outcome, you're done. But life is not a single-play game - life is an iterated game. In most cases, you will interact with the same people tomorrow that you interact with today. Regardless of the outcome of a particular game, the choice of game itself and the strategies in it impact the relationship.

This is where Chicken is particularly problematic, because Chicken destroys relationships. In order to be willing to play Chicken at all, you have to take the position that you would rather die (or suffer horrifically bad consequences) than let the other side win. Once you make that statement, the other side will likely never trust you again. Playing this game at all - regardless of the outcome - largely closes off future opportunities for cooperation, because who would cooperate with someone with that value structure?

The second problem with Chicken in the real world is that, unlike in the game metaphor, the consequences of the game aren't borne by the players. Playing Chicken in a public environment doesn't mean being willing to absorb punishment oneself so much as being willing to inflict harm on bystanders that aren't in the game at all.

The Federal government shutdown was a classic example of this. 800,000 federal workers, and perhaps more than 1,000,000 contractors, went without paychecks for a month. The latter group will never recoup that lost money. Regardless of who "won", those people all lost. And that's not counting the ripple effects throughout the economy, as spending dropped and families became anxious. Standard & Poor's estimated that the shutdown evaporated about $6 billion from the US economy.

A faculty strike has the same dynamics. Yes, faculty who strike do suffer (unless the union has built up a Strike Fund, they go without pay for some period of time), as does the administration (which must scramble to figure out how to cover or substitute classes). But the real losers are the students. If you take seriously that what faculty do in the classroom matters, then some number of students are being robbed of the educational opportunity for which they have paid and arranged their lives. The longer the strike goes on (it's now into its second week as of this writing), the greater that cost is. A "crash" scenario means that some could lose the entire semester, setting their lives back by six months at least.

This is why even the "winners" in Chicken aren't really winners. There are no heroes in this game, only tragic victims and fools. As the movie War Games put it so many year ago:

Thursday, January 3, 2019

What Do You Believe?

I've spent a lot of time thinking about belief lately, and the ways in which beliefs shape our lives and our behavior. What we believe tends to drive what we do - whether we know it or not.

During the 2008 Democratic Presidential primaries, Hillary Clinton famously criticized Barack Obama's "Hope and Change" slogan with the zingy one-liner, "Hope is not a strategy." The attack failed, of course, and Obama went on to win both the primaries and the election.

Electoral history aside, the important thing here is that Clinton's critique missed the entire point. People don't seek hope in place of a strategy or a how-to manual. People are drawn to hope because they believe in something. Belief is necessary, and then strategy follows. One quote (variously attributed to different sources) puts it this way:

If you want to build a ship, don't drum up people to collect wood and don't assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.

Our beliefs and desires are what really motivate us. Everything else is details.

We live in an increasingly belief-free age - or one in which our beliefs are becoming smaller and smaller. On the political stage, "1000 Points of Light" and "Yes We Can" (beliefs in America meant, however imperfectly, for everyone) have been replaced with "Make America Great Again" (with a decidedly smaller and less inclusive "America").

We don't believe our politicians anymore (for many good reasons). We also don't believe in corporations, or religious institutions, or government, or indeed very much else. Polls about Americans' trust in various groups and institutions are usually referenced with regard to what is higher or lower than what, but the overall trend of trust - of belief that someone or something will be good - is down.

Given how politicians, and corporations, and religious leaders, and just about everyone else in the public eye have behaved over the past couple of decades, this decline in belief in understandable. It's hard to believe in things that disappoint or betray you.

But it's also hard to live without belief. Most of us do, in fact, believe some things about the world, though we may not be aware of those beliefs. If we believe that other people are fundamentally untrustworthy, we will act accordingly. If we believe that institutions cannot be trusted, we will not trust them. If we believe that some people ("them") are worth less than others ("us"), we will treat them worse.

I see this in professional life as well. I have worked for a number of colleges and universities over time. Those that have tended to do best, or at least those that have tended to be the most enjoyable to work for, were those where people both in leadership and throughout the organization believed in the institution and its work. People who believe in a place act like as if the institution is both good and capable of being better. People who don't act as if it's lousy and can't get any better.

The problem with a decline in belief is that things get worse for everyone. People trust less and distrust more; listen less and filter information more; cooperate less and attack more.

For all its simplicity, Prisoner's Dilemma still has a lot to teach us. I think its enduring power is because the PD dynamic captures something fundamental about life. In nearly all arenas, and certainly in all communities, we are all collectively better off when we cooperate and we are all collectively worse off when we defect. The more we defect, the poorer (socially, economically, emotionally, and spiritually) we all become.

What can be done? Here, the PD model does offer some hope. The best strategy over the long haul in PD is Tit-for-Tat (TFT). A lot of folks think of TFT in terms of its reactive nature - when someone else defects on me, I defect back at them. That's the part of TFT that our cynical age can get behind.

But the real power of TFT is the opening move, which is always to cooperate. When we begin with cooperation, good things happen. Not every time, and not perfectly. But in the end, it's the only choice that will make things any better.

We cooperate when we share something in common - interests, values, goals, beliefs. When we long for the sea together, we will figure out how to build a ship together, because the sea is our goal. When we believe that our community, or our company, or our nation can be made better - and (crucially) when we agree on what "better" means - then we will find a way to work towards that end. We don't cooperate because cooperation is good for us, we cooperate because we want to accomplish something.

In too many places, we have stopped having conversations about what we believe in, or what we hope for. In a cynical age, we see belief as something for "suckers", for "losers", for people who "don't get it". And so we believe in nothing, or we fall back on unexamined beliefs that often reflect our fears and insecurities rather than our better angels.

These are the conversations we need to have. We need to talk again about belief as if belief were something worth having. We need to talk about hope as if hope were a real thing.

We are far more powerful than we realize in this way: when we believe that hope is dead, then our belief becomes true. But if we believe that hope is alive and worth nourishing, then it becomes so immediately.

I know which world I want to live in. And so, I believe.