Guest Post: On Voting Strategically in 2012: The Ultimatum Game

Today, I’m putting up another guest post by Robert Prasch, analyzing the “ultimatum” politics of the Democratic Party, more specifically, of the Democratic National Committee. Important, timely, provocative. Read on…


On Voting Strategically in 2012: The Ultimatum Game

By Robert E. Prasch

Department of Economics

Middlebury College

Over the past year, many disappointed progressives and liberals have resigned themselves to voting for the president’s reelection, despite their full understanding that the Administration has nothing but contempt for all that they hold dear. They ask, “Well, what can we do”?  This is a reasonable question and it deserves a thoughtful answer.

What Can We Do In Light of the National Democratic Party’s Tilt to the Right?

Before formulating the answer, let us recall that this question has emerged on multiple occasions over the past thirty-five years.  Some might believe that this has been an unfortunate series of accidents, but it was not.  It can be ascribed to the strategy laid out in the early 1980s by Rep. Tony Coelho, who was then the head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, and to the powerful influence of the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), founded in 1985.  Each of these groups worked long and diligently to end the Democratic Party’s long association with New Deal-type legislation so as to increase its appeal to economic elites.  Additionally, they worked hard to sever the Democratic Party’s association with anti-war causes and the extensive 1970s effort to expose and place limits on the executive branch’s capacity for war-making, covert action by the CIA, domestic spying, and associated “dirty tricks.”

By 1996, this effort had come to full fruition.  That year liberals and progressives were asked to support the reelection of a president who had spent his first four years working tirelessly to promote corporate-dictated “Free Trade Agreements,” the irresponsible de-regulation of finance, the vigorous privatizing of any and all government functions, the Defense of Marriage Act, and ever-more punitive measures against the poor and undocumented.  That candidate was, of course, Bill Clinton.  In 2000, we were asked to again validate these rightist policies by electing Clinton’s vice-president, with the sole modification being a commitment to forgo sexual antics with the interns.

In 2004, Senator John Kerry firmly promised a return to Clinton’s Neoliberal agenda while repeatedly telling us that, despite everything that had occurred or been revealed in the interim, he remained steadfast behind the 2002 vote that he, Hillary Clinton, Joseph Biden, and so many other Senate Democrats gave to support of George W. Bush’s Iraq adventure.  It goes without saying that Kerry was and remains an enthusiast for any and all corporate-directed “Free Trade” agreements, financial deregulation, imperial expansion, and – of course – the stripping away of Constitutional protections.  Believing that they had no choice, millions of anti-war voters nevertheless validated the script laid out by the now-DLC controlled Democratic National Committee (DNC).  It is, I would suggest, past time for liberals and progressives to question this learned response.  Despite the rhetoric coming from Washington, it is NOT true that liberals and progressives owe their vote to whatever pseudo-liberal figure happens to be favored by the major donors and associated grandees of the DNC.

On Voting Strategically

The good news is that we do have a choice.  The bad news is that it may not be the one that we would wish for, but it is a choice nevertheless.  Moreover, handled adroitly, it could pave the way to better choices in the future.  Stated simply, I believe that we should “vote strategically.”  However, strategic voting necessitates that we begin by analyzing the structure of the “game” that constitutes the elements of the increasingly-bitter contest between American liberals & progressives and the leadership of the DNC.  As it turns out, this rivalry mimics what is known as the “Ultimatum Game.”  Once the contours of this game are understood, we can revisit our strategies, and begin to think of a way out of our current dilemma.

The rules of the Ultimatum Game can be readily described.  Consider a game with two players and one round. The first player is given $10.00 in one-dollar bills to split with the second player according to any distribution selected solely at the former’s discretion (i.e. $10 & $0; $9 & $1; $8 & $2; … $0 & $10).  The second player’s sole decision is to “accept” or “reject.”  If the second player “accepts,” the distribution proposed by first player becomes the final distribution of the cash and the games ends.  If the second player “rejects” each player is awarded $0 & $0.  That is the game.  Now, what is the predicted solution?

If the game is known to be of only one round in duration, and the players are motivated solely by self-interest, then the “dominant strategy” of the first player is to offer a $9 & $1 distribution, and the “dominant strategy” of the second player is to “accept.”  Why do they accept?  Well, accepting renders the second player “better off” as $1 is unambiguously greater than $0.  Undoubtedly they will be irritated by the first player’s lack of generosity, but as their only way to express that irritation is to petulantly “reject” the offer, thereby causing a distribution of $0 & $0, they find themselves without a substantive alternative to “accepting.”  So far, so good.

Now, let us reexamine the Ultimatum Game in the event that play is extended beyond a single round.  Let us suppose that all players understand that the game will be played for an indefinite number of rounds.  Under this changed situation, the second player has an opportunity to “discipline” the first player for treating her unfairly.  If the first round offer is an ungenerous $9 & $1, the second player can say “reject.”  Yes, she will give up $1, but her refusal “costs” the first player $9.  Ouch.  The first player, recognizing the possibility of a punitive refusal, and knowing that they will be playing against the same rival for the foreseeable future, has a clear incentive to improve the initial offer they make to the second player.  Depending upon her aversion to risk, traded off against her desire to earn as much as possible before the game ends, she may initially offer $7 & $3, or even $6 & $4.  If she is anxious to achieve a rapid agreement, the first player might even appeal to our widely-shared ideal of “fairness” by offering an initial distribution of $5 & $5.  Please note, as this is important, that the improved offers made in a repeated game are not induced by a commitment to “fair play,” but by self-interest.

The Ultimatum Game in Practice: The DNC vs. Rank-and-File Democrats

With the above in mind, let us return to the “game” played between the grandees and donors who dominate the DNC and the overwhelming majority of registered party members whose preferences, interests, or dispositions are liberal, progressive, anti-war, anti-Too Big To Fail financial institutions, or simply pro-U. S. Constitution and supportive of the rights of habeas corpus.

The DNC, as we have repeatedly seen, is pre-disposed to neglect or despise the hopes and wishes of their core voters.  Nevertheless, the DNC must retain their votes if they are to win elections, which is a necessary condition for achieving plum executive branch postings and the lucrative post-political careers as lobbyists and deal-makers that follow seamlessly to those who have been blessed with such appointments.  For that reason, they must convince anyone who will listen that all elections are – in the language of game theory – contests featuring a single round.  For this reason, the Administration, its spokesmen, and their proxies on MSNBC are “playing the game” correctly as they try to convince wavering or disappointed liberals and progressives that this election is the most critical in living memory.  Once this premise is established, any and all discussions with malingerers and discontents can be devoted to highlighting the relatively modest differences between the major party candidates.  And, let me be the first to agree, there may be some differences.  Drawing again from the example above, $1 is unambiguously greater than $0.  But, let us be honest, how big are these differences?  On the Constitution?  On Overseas Wars?  On corporate-scripted trade agreements?  On ongoing criminality and malfeasance within our bloated and broke Too Big To Fail banks?  Seriously, does anyone who is not a senior executive at a failed and corrupt financial institution benefit from keeping Timothy Geithner or Eric Holder in office?  I think not.

This, then, brings us to the 2012 election.  What should we do?  In light of profoundly right-wing tilt of the DNC and the Administration on such a vast range of the nation’s most pressing issues, how can liberals and progressives avoid wasting their vote?  I submit that we should recognize that the DNC has long been playing the “Ultimatum Game” with its supporters.  Moreover, in an era of big money politics they will be playing this game for the foreseeable future.  In all honesty, it is past time for liberals and progressives to refuse to cooperate with the DNC’s powerful political insiders who have repeatedly demonstrated nothing but contempt for them, their ideas, and their ideals.  We did not set up this “game.”  The DNC did.  But that does not mean that we have to play along with them.

Consciously turning our back on the Neoliberal, pro-war, and anti-Constitution DNC does not mean that we should stay home this fall.  On the contrary, we should devote our energies to rebuilding the base of liberal and progressive politics in our towns, cities, and states by working ONLY for local candidates that we like, admire, and trust.  If the above analysis of the game is reasonably accurate, and I believe that it is, the DNC will forced to present us with better “distributions” in future years once they come to learn that substantial number of liberals and progressives are willing to “reject” bad offers (but, before that occurs, expect a torrent of abuse from them).  This year, as with so many times in the recent past, we will be expected to participate willingly and happily in our own political irrelevance.  Enough is enough.  This time, make your vote count.  Don’t play along.

Holmes, Guns, and Terrorism: We Need to Ask Different Questions

The last 72 hours have been an important exercise in understanding how a public tragedy is framed, or taken as a call (against) arms.  The mid-night movie theater tragedy in Aurora, Colorado has led to a renewed call for gun regulation, a regulation of movie violence, and anxiety about loners, as if addressing these problems would have pre-empted the Aurora massacre. I worry that we jump to certain policy conclusions. Those policies may be excellent on many grounds, but often they are exploited during tragedies like the Aurora massacre, a tragedy that is quickly being sculpted to fit the foregone conclusion instead of being analyzed to see if there are deeper answers—or even better questions to ask.

Let me be clear: I think the stricter regulation of guns is urgently needed.  But I’m not convinced by the Brady Organization’s insistence that an earlier and effective regulation of guns would have prevented some version of this tragedy from happening. I do think that the massacre in Aurora is an important lightning rod by which to raise the issue of regulating, outlawing, banning guns from easy access by an American public.  Yet, James Holmes, the young man who was witnessed by many as he shot 71 victims in an Aurora, Colorado cinema, would probably have found a way around the regulations. Described as a “brilliant science student,” by some media reports, he had no prior criminal record, attracted no prior attention from law enforcement officials, whether for speeding tickets or parking tickets.  He’d never had a run-in with college officials at UC Riverside, where he had done his undergraduate work, nor at CU-Denver, where he had formerly been a Ph.D. student in the neuroscience program—at least as far as I’ve heard.

Even if Holmes had been deterred by stiff anti-gun regulation, he might have skirted it by buying guns illegally, or by using some other weapon—explosive or chemical—to carry out his plans. We don’t have enough information yet to know what he intended.  We know that his plan was fairly long in the making, with records of his gun purchases dating back to the end of May 2012.  If he was capable of that kind of foresight, then he could certainly have concocted a home-made version of napalm or other chemical weapons that could have led to widespread destructive damage. In fact, as I write this, Colorado police have succeeded in disarming the booby-traps that Holmes set in his apartment, and have reported that some of them consisted of various chemicals that would explode when mixed. Holmes ordered and received some of his ingredients through the mail as early as four months ago. Clearly, he was capable of long-range planning that could have circumvented gun laws.

Holmes’ actions resembled those of Malik Nadal Hassan, the Army psychiatrist who killed 13 on the Fort Hood U.S. Army Base back in 2010.  Yet, with the exception of an astute piece by Salon’s David Sirota, few have noted that Holmes’ actions were “terrorist” in nature.  As Sirota points out, Holmes is merely described as “a white American male.” That short description, it seems, is sufficient to identify his actions as those of a deranged loner. By contrast, Malik Nadal Hassan, because he was Muslim, was immediately described as a “terrorist” even prior to any evidence.  Ironically, only today, the FBI released a report indicating that FBI personnel “failed” to anticipate Hassan’s actions, even though they had intercepted his emails months before the attack, 20 of which were addressed to Anwar al-Awlaki, who was killed by the US in September 2011.

Hassan’s emails apparently alternated between political ramblings, including whether it was permissible to kill innocents for a valuable target, and pleadings with al-Awlaki to find him a wife.  In retrospect, it seems, those emails were read as being insufficient to identify Hassan as being a potential terrorist, and thus the report accuses the FBI of mistakes, although in a mealy-mouthed fashion, the same report exculpates all individual members of the FBI. The only conclusion I can draw from this is that even the FBI is unsure of how to define or anticipate a terrorist action.

To read mainstream media on various cases, Holmes’ profile is not appealing enough to be classified as a “terrorist,” although it does seem to fit the general profile of North American mass murderers: such as the Tucson attack on former US Congresswoman Gabby Giffords and others (Jared Lee Loughner;, AZ, 2011); Columbine (Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris; Colorado, 1999); Virginia Tech (Seung-Hui Cho, Blacksburg, 2007); Dawson College (Kimveer Gill; Montreal 2006); the École Polytechnique Massacre (Marc Lépine; Montreal 1989) among others:  young, white, partially-white, or Asian, middle- to upper-class North American male.  And yet, the massacres committed by these men, if we eclipsed their names and ethnic origins, are much more extreme acts than those for which many young men have been detained indefinitely or convicted: men like Syed Fahad Hashmi, Tarek Mehanna, Hysen Sherifi, Omar Aly Hassan, Zihad Yaghi.

Holmes may have been geeky, quiet and a “loner.” But many of us, especially those who are writers, artists, intellectuals, scholars, were—or still are–geeky, quiet, and loners.  To identify someone as a loner merely means that we don’t understand his inner life. It doesn’t render that person mentally ill or eligible to be the next mass murderer.  In fact, many gregarious, socially outgoing individuals are capable of directing mass murder as well: just look at Bashir Assad, Saddam Hussein, Muammar Ghaddafi, George W. Bush, and of course, many others in the current Administration. Massacres can be engaged from distances as high up as 12,000 feet or as far away as 12,000 miles.

Did Holmes understand himself as Banes, the evil character in the Batman movie who shoots up the NY Stock Exchange? Perhaps. Is this cause for regulating the violent character of movies?  But aren’t many morality tales in the form of religious literature or movies violent at some level? Easily, I can think of Cain and Abel, the Kauravas and Pandyas in the Mahabharata, James Bond, Lara Croft, The Hunger Games… Aren’t we all moved by ideas at some level? Ideas about safety, security, evil, good, patriotism, terrorism, god, piety, virtue?

What is difficult to analyze is why morality tales induce some to take up arms, or deploy chemical warfare, or stab others. And for me, the question remains as to why certain innocent deaths are mourned not at all, especially when conducted at the behest of the state, and why only certain criminals are called to justice while others are glorified and urged to create more mayhem. I mourn the senseless deaths of those in Aurora, as I mourn the senseless end of the lives of many others—whether by shootings, aerial bombardment, chemical warfare, or indefinite detention. Stronger regulation of guns may be one important aspect of limiting the deaths of random civilians—not only for the general public but for the state as well. But given his adroit skills with chemicals and booby-traps, I suspect that gun regulation would not have stopped James Holmes.  We need to ask more probing questions that reflect some awareness about the larger implications of state violence in the last decade.

James Holmes was 12 years old when 9-11 happened. We don’t know how he understood the events of 9-11, but we can probably guess accurately that if he watched TV, or played electronic games, or read online media sites, then like many others who came of age in the last twelve years, he was intimately familiar with images of state violence on a daily basis.  He was probably also familiar with the roar of approval at the images of bombs, drones, chemical warfare that were deployed against many halfway around the world. What I write here does not exculpate Holmes in any way. I am trying to understand, beyond easy policy prescriptions and outside of immediate charges of “craziness” and sociopathic tendencies, what the world looks like to someone in their early twenties, someone who had no history of violence. I am also trying to understand, beyond corporate media exploitation of massacres and other local violence—exploitation that extracts sorrow and grief even when these expressions of empathy are offered generously—why we can’t mourn others who have been the victims of senseless attacks by our state when we are capable of empathy for many whom we don’t know.  What does a world in which violence is ready-to-hand, a click away, do to our young?

Dylan Rodrigues, the chair of Ethnic Studies at UC Riverside, gave an insightful talk years ago, when he pointed to the “carceral mentality” of the United States. He was discussing the forceful impulses of imperial powers to incarcerate men in Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, and pointed to these incarcerations as mirrors of the United States’ impulse to imprison African Americans in the United States. The impulse to incarcerate others “abroad,” was normalized because we had become accustomed to the ubiquity of prisons, and to criminalization and imprisonment as a solution to deal with “others” who make us uncomfortable—I would say—by their presence but also by their questioning of our ethics.

Can we say something similar about the normalization of violence?  Many school shooting sprees and other forms of massacres have occurred in North America alone in the last three decades. The question that seems to be avoided is why so many young middle- and upper-class white and Asian men turn to violence.  What are they thinking? What do they see? Chalking these up to acts of lunacy ignores the systemic character of these acts. The charge of lunacy blithely insists that such acts of violence are singular, occasional deviations from “normalcy.” But what is normalcy in our society, where 1 in 3 Black men can “expect” to go to prison in their lifetimes? When 1 in 5 women have reportedadmitted—that they were raped? When 17,000 people are murdered annually in the US (nearly 66% by firearms)?

Clearly, in terms of policies, gun control is an important element of trying to manage the easy access to deadly weapons. But it must be part of a broader view.  We need frank investigations into the massacre at Aurora—with questions that resist easy policy subscriptions.  We need the courage to face what we might find–that terrorists come in all colors and personalities and may not be detectable through a system of ever-increasing surveillance. We might have to admit that the war on terror is backfiring. We need to step up our criticism of the US Administration, and its role in glorifying violence through the wars that it wages, and facilitating violence in places that we aren’t ready to look: among whites, among non-Muslims, among the privileged. These possibilities, as terrifying as they are, might be more effective places to challenge violence.

Hiatus or, why I haven’t posted much for months

I trepidatiously checked the stats today after months away, expecting to find that the numbers had dropped to 0. I was moved and embarrassed to see how many of you are still sticking with me on a daily, weekly basis–despite my prolonged absence on this blog. My explanation? It is true to say that I have been distracted by other things– research, finishing articles, language classes, writing workshops and seminars, and a brief vacation. But politics and political analysis are not dispassionate side interests. I cannot simply write about war, invasions, casualties, political and moral failures, state power, the effects of immigration law, deportation, hate crimes, xenophobia, or even philosophy, without being existentially affected by them. I needed to turn away from political commentary for a while, conscious of the enormity of the violence and general public indifference (not yours, dear readers) to these injustices, in order to find a source of hope.  As problematic, though, has been my focus upon similar–if not repetitive–issues in post after post, and my concern that I had few insights to share or new lights to shed on public issues of common concern. I’m not sure the last issue has been resolved. But time away seems to have allowed me to find some sun (literally and imaginatively) and subtlety that I hope to infuse into future writings for this blog. To be sure, I have certainly not stopped writing in the last four months, but I hope to be more consistent. Thanks for your patience and kindness and loyalty.

Tomorrow, I will have a new post on the public response to the Aurora, CO murders–either through a link to another site or as an original post.