Monday, July 27, 2009

Obama, Game Theory, Right, Wrong and Justice

It seems the method to Obama's conciliatory style is basic Game Theory. According to Game Theory, compromises often provide the best net outcome for both parties even though the compromised outcome is never the optimal one for either. One example is the game of chicken, i.e., where you drive your car toward your opponent's car, and whoever swerves loses. Best case scenario, you go straight, your opponent swerves. Second best, you both swerve. Third best, you swerve first. Worst, neither of you swerve, and you both die in the crash.

To achieve the optimal outcome, you cannot swerve. Of course, by doing so, you risk the worst one. Obama's tack is to persuade people to settle for the second-best case scenario. By contrast the Bush administration seemed to want to step on the gas and convince its opponents that the steering wheel was broken, and swerving was not an option. Therefore its opponents would be left only with option three or option four. Of course, that only works when the opponent can be easily cowed like the congressional democrats. When dealing with Islamic militants, many of whom would prefer a cathartic crash, we were assured the worst - or second worst if we realized they were more committed than us and backed down in time.

But Obama will necessarily disappoint people who hoped for their optimal outcome. Overall, we can see why this is a good strategy because the outcome on average will likely be better than ones where everyone is dead set on winning. But what makes Obama's tack hard to take is not its outcomes but that compromise seems to proceed irrespective of right, wrong or justice. In other words, Obama will choose option 2, even if his side is absolutely right, and the other side is absolutely wrong. A good (if trivial) example is the Henry Gates incident with the Cambridge police officer.

When Gates, a black Harvard professor, was having trouble getting into his upscale home, a neighbor called the police to report a possible break-in. When the white police officer, Sgt. Crowley, arrived and questioned him, Gates became angry and insulted the officer. The officer ascertained Gates was indeed the owner of the house, but after Gates verbally got after him some more, Crowley cuffed Gates and brought him to the police station.

When asked about the incident, Obama said he didn't know all the details but that the Cambridge police acted stupidly in arresting a man in his own house for yelling at the cop who questioned him. This caused a major uproar, but what Obama said was true - irrespective of the other facts, if a cop arrests a man who's not a danger in his own home, that's stupid.

Due to the uproar, Obama later conceded that "stupid" was an unfortunate choice of words and called the officer to invite him for a beer at the White House. While settling for outcome 2 - both Obama and the Cambridge police swerve - is better than Obama and the police "crashing" into each other, it's unsettling that Obama made this compromise despite characterizing the interaction correctly.

This incident is so trivial that how he handled it does not trouble me too much, and the compromise can easily be filed under "you have to pick your battles." But it's indicative of a larger pattern whereby Obama will shoot for the best average outcome irrespective of what side is right or wrong. The concern here is the loss of justice. To take a far less trivial example, the Obama administration has so far refused to push for an investigation of Bush officials for possible war crimes even though there's ample evidence they violated the Geneva conventions and took part in torture. Again, letting that slide, "looking forward not back" might be less risky and damaging in the short run, but can we really settle for the second best option - no prosecutions, no political fallout - when the best option - justice, accountability, rule of law - is the right thing to do? In other words, at what point does Obama's conciliatory Game Theory optimization yield to bigger, universal truths?

The other side of the coin is this - and I've experienced this in my personal life with various girlfriends and even friends and colleagues: (1) just because you think you're right (or even are sure you're right) doesn't mean your adversary doesn't believe he's just as right; and (2) even if you are in fact right, it's often worth conceding to keep the peace, i.e., just because one is right doesn't mean insisting on one's rightness is the optimal course of conduct.

The hope is Obama's Game Theory tack operates only as a means to achieve optimal ends and not as an end in itself. In other words, one might have to settle for a suboptimal outcome in many battles, but only to ensure ultimately that justice triumphs in the overall war. Perhaps this is what he means when he quotes Martin Luther King, saying "the arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice." If not, then settling for the second-best outcome is not a sustainable strategy for achieving our most important priorities.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

The Emperor Has No Clothes

This post at The Anonymous Liberal sums up the Palin phenomenon to a tee.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

The Other Reason the Old Media is Dying

It's well known that the web has eaten into print circulation and advertising for newspapers and that cable news channels and the web have given consumers far more choices for news than the network options. But that's only part of the equation. The other is that the mainstream media just isn't very good at its job. Let's take a relatively benign example.

In Saturday's New York Times, writer Adam Nagourney writes an article entitled: "If White House Is Her Goal, Palin’s Route Is Risky". The purpose of the article was to assess Palin's chances of being elected president now that she's resigned from being Governor of Alaska.

Nagourney quotes a political strategist, a former White House political director and a former McCain adviser (among others) to analyze her prospects. Some think it's possible she can regroup, some think it'll be hard for her to expand her base, but nowhere in the article is there any mention that this woman *should not be* and *should never have been* a serious candidate for any government office. That is not merely my view; it's a fact. Whether I am qualified to play the oboe in the London Philharmonic or quarterback for the New York Jets is not merely a matter of opinion. Even if many people believe I would be great at both, it's simply, factually untrue. Andrew Sullivan has exhaustively documented why that's the case, and Palin herself validated Sullivan's views with this resignation speech, though they hardly required validating following the distastrous Katie Couric interview last fall.

But my point isn't to talk about Palin, but about how a New York Times front page article can analyze Palin's chances for the presidency without ever mentioning how disastrous it would be. It's like commenting on a football team's play calling when it's down 35 points in the fourth quarter. "It's second and six, and I think you'll see a little play action here, with the defense expecting a run." It's 35-0 - no one cares what kind of play they call! Analyzing the strategy without acknowledging the absurd context reveals you have no idea what's going on. I'll assume that Nagourney does realize what Palin is, but feels he must pretend she might one day be a legitimate presidential hopeful so as not to seem overly partisan or to inject his opinion into it. But by pretending that, he badly insults the intelligence of his readers. NFL announcers, many of whom are not particularly good at their jobs, either, would never analyze the play calling in that way during the fourth quarter of a blowout game. Even the worst of them have more respect than that for the audience. If there's a blowout going on, that fact is not somehow ignored because fans of the team will be upset if it were acknowledged.

As a result, newspapers and news channels which also operate under this policy of pretending obvious facts that make moot their whole analysis don't exist, are not offering compelling content. You can't stop technological progress, and you can't make some people pay for a print product that's available for free online, but you can offer useful content. And you can also communicate implicitly to your readers what you think of them. Writing columns about Palin's chances of a future run at the White House without acknowledging how wrong she is for the job, is horribly patronizing.

The crisis in the news business is not just one of solvency, but one of legitimacy. How can we possibly be expected to tune into sources that refuse to acknowledge the most pertinent facts? Until the MSM stops being afraid to offend or be criticized, they'll lose readers not only to new technologies, but also because most people really, desperately want to be told the truth.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Letter to Dianne Feinstein

Copy of an email they probably won't read which I sent to their office:

Senator Feinstein:

If you do not support the public option for healthcare which a majority of Americans support and an even wider majority of the democratic constituents who elected you, I promise you no amount of health-care industry money will save your seat. And no amount of repentance will save your permanently and irrevocably tarnished legacy. I'm sorry to be harsh, but this is your job - to get a working health care system in place. Congress has not done it all these years, but with a democratic majority and Obama in the White House, there are no longer any excuses.

Americans like me do our jobs every day. That our government has this kind of fiscal deficit, but we're 37th in health care quality is nothing short of a disgrace. If you're not willing to take responsibility for fixing it, we will elect someone who will. It's a sad state of affairs where citizens like me have to write our senators just to get them to do their jobs. But make no mistake, we will do whatever it takes to make sure our deadbeat legislatures start representing us and not their corporate patrons.

I'm cc'ing my 23,500 blog readers on this as well and encouraging them to pass it on. (Okay, I exaggerated by 23,495 or so).

Very Truly Yours,

Christopher P. Liss
Independent Voter who volunteered for and donated to Barack Obama

What annoys me most about our elected representatives is they think being a senator is prestigious, something that makes you a big success, person of status, someone above the people. When in reality it should be just the opposite - you are now an employee of the people, a public servant. We pay your salary and, ironically, your health care expenses. I think it's important we continually remind them of the proper balance this relationship should have.