Let the game begin! I was very excited by my colleague Andrew McGill’s work to bring game theory into the context of the election. Long story short, the weird three-sided game of chicken between GOP #NeverTrump leaders, voters, and candidates can be explained by game theory, which uses mathematical concepts to model and predict interactions between multiple decision-makers. Essentially, the game of endorsements and counter-endorsements, the dance of pledges, and the calculus of electability are all based on complex webs of predictive decisions that can actually be modeled.
I’ve long been a fan of game theory, even though I’m not an expert in it. I studied the related, but infinitely less interesting field of decision theory in graduate school, and I’ve always been interested in modeling how to solve complex global problems. Andrew’s article gave me an excuse to revive my old fascination with game theory and global catastrophe.
The very first game theory concept I became familiar with was the prisoner’s dilemma in the context of nuclear war and mutually assured destruction. In this particular game, two nuclear-armed adversarial sides that aren’t diplomatically engaged tend towards an arms race and an eventual mutual strike, even when the obvious best solution is both sides disarming. Luckily for the world, we had just enough diplomacy, luck, and influential free-radical actors to defuse that situation. So far. Here’s a little more on that.
Both the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists and President Barack Obama identify climate change as one of the key looming catastrophes of today. My colleagues here have been doing great work on the issue of climate change and the war-like mobilization that might be necessary to confront it. I’m concerned with the political and diplomatic nuts and bolts required to implement climate policies, and my guess is that game theory can help. My limited sense is that both are informed by the prisoner’s dilemma, but this “game” is much more complex than the two-sided dilemma I’m familiar with. I still think the concepts hold up well enough to use game theory to help provide workable policy ideas to try to stop some of the worst future effects of climate change, hopefully in ways that could fit some bipartisan sensibilities. In this case, what’s the equivalent of nuclear disarmament in climate policy and how can the costs and benefits be balanced?
So here’s the reason I’m writing this note: I think it would be interesting to work with readers and experts to provide a nuanced game-theory-based understanding of climate policy. Generally, journalists keep their ideas quiet and call up big-name experts until a workable article arrives. But that often leads them to talk to the same narrow cast of experts, even if other academics are doing more interesting work. And the fields of game theory and decision theory are full of enthusiastic basement forecasters—and I’d like to get their input, too.
Here’s the ask: If you are working on game-theory-based climate policy forecasting, if you're involved in the field and have ideas, or if you’re simply intrigued and have any input or questions, send me an email. Let me know what you’re working on, show me your models if you have any, send me resources that might be useful, or just ask questions!
I’ll provide updates and share input from contributors in Notes as the project coalesces. Thanks, y’all!
Welcome back, gamers! A week ago, I wrote a Note here with the goal of crowdsourcing reader and expert knowledge in order to come up with a game-theory-based understanding of climate policy that could be used to find some insights about how states and countries might implement different policies. So far, I’ve received dozens of emails and tweets from students, economists, game theorists, climate change scientists, and some field-leading experts with some great questions, ideas, and resources. I’m currently sifting through them all and working to gain a better idea of what questions might be answered and how.
I thought it might be a good time to whittle down just what we’re trying to do here based on feedback. First, just what actors and climate policies are we examining? Originally, I had the idea to just think about a kitchen sink of international actors or states. Obviously, that’s not a very good setup for any kind of modeling, so I’ve been thinking about three separate problems. The first is taking a look at West Virginia and Kentucky, two neighboring states that are among the worst in per capita greenhouse emissions. What might a regional emissions-cap agreement look like for them? What are the costs of mitigation for each state? What are the risks involved? Using simple models, what could payoffs could we predict from their decisions?
The second problem I’m considering is perhaps the classic climate-change “game” between the United States and China. Given that these countries make up 44 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions, this game provides a decent enough understanding of global climate policy and the inputs and considerations required. Here, let’s just consider a very loose hypothetical: cutting total combined emissions from fossil fuels in both countries by half over the next ten years. Would each country be responsible for only its current share, or would the United States pick up some of China’s slack? How much would the reduction cost? How could we estimate the climate gains and externalities of these decisions? What unique benefits and drawbacks might climate change mitigation have for each country? Given all these variables, we should be able to roughly model basic climate decisions between the two.
The third and most ambitious problem that might be worth examining is modeling the long-term outcomes of the Paris Agreement, given its stated objective of limiting climate increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius and the different policy levers involved. This would be an addition to work done to model the Paris framework and previously the Copenhagen framework. Instead of modeling negotiations, though, we’d be exploring long-range decisions and payoffs for a range of set policies. Granted, tracking over 100 signatories is impossible work, but we can take a look at the United States, China, the European Union, India, and the Russian Federation. Modeling this problem may prove too ambitious for the scope of an article here, but I’m hoping that by discussing it we can understand some of the complicated considerations of climate policies.
Thanks to readers from last week for providing some vital context and understanding. Last week, I discussed climate change as a prisoner’s dilemma, but depending on how much it costs to fix and how much averting climate change may help, that may not be the case. I will include some graphics to illustrate in the next Note, but basically a prisoner’s dilemma tends towards a scenario where both players defect (or choose the option to not cooperate) because the risk of choosing to cooperate while the opponent exploits you (in the prisoner’s dilemma, the opponent snitching and sending you to prison), is just too great. So although cooperating is the best option, both players tend towards not cooperating. This is how I envisioned climate-change policy working, but through email, reader Chris Lambert challenged my idea with the idea of a game of chicken––or a game that tends towards “swerving,” or one party embracing climate policy efforts with the other party encouraging it, but not helping:
Just to elaborate a little: based on preliminary outcomes, actors given reasonable ranges of uncertainty for the number and nature of the costs and benefits of abatement have been more likely to conclude that the sum costs of defection (fighting for the other nation to do more abatement) exceed the benefits of the target global abatement level. This causes a lot of "swerving," rather than defection by both parties. One or the other state decides to unilaterally commit to more abatement than their "fair share" under a cooperative outcome. As a climate game this might not make much sense, but it does predict some of the behavior.
Lambert and I discussed the difference in marginal benefit of abatement between China and the United States. That concept is a bit dense for this space, but essentially, there is a “sweet spot” between the value of abatement and the value of keeping pollution where it is, and it’s different for different states. Thus, one country may be keen on exploiting another state into doing the work of abatement—which has global impacts—another may be especially predisposed to doing that work. There’s more on the idea of marginal benefit of abatement here.
That’s all for now. Check back later on this week for some basic matrices and payoff analyses, and please let me know if you have any questions, comments, input, or any idea for how to tackle the games we’ve come up with. As always, feel free to email me.
Welcome back, gamers! This installment of the project on game theory and climate change will take some time to outline basic concepts about game theory and apply them to the three “games” described in the previous Note. To recap, we’ll be considering scenarios involving a hypothetical negotiation between West Virginia and Kentucky to curb emissions, a similar negotiation between the United States and China, and finally the future actions of the major expected signatories of the Paris climate agreement.
In each scenario there are a collection of actions that each actor can take. We’ll need to simplify a lot of these actions in the early going into approving and enacting a climate policy or deciding to continue business as usual. Here, in the context of the game, it makes sense to label the two strategies coordination and defection. There are, of course, infinite other possible strategies that may only differ by a dollar amount of spending or a single ton of emissions reduced. As the project goes on, hopefully we’ll be able to model these more accurately using some fancy statistics, but for now the two strategies are to coordinate or defect. The conjunction of each of these strategies with another actor’s corresponding strategy will produce an outcome for each actor.
In all scenarios, the five main considerations are the value of environmental resources, the future costs of climate change, the degree to which emissions policies can affect those future costs, how much those policies cost, and how much each actor can actually afford to spend or lose. There are some other considerations that can act as minor variables, such as the often considerable “inertia” involved in adopting new technologies and policies, the externalities of emissions policies (i.e. reducing smog in China or water pollution in West Virginia), elections and shifting public opinion, and the changing immediacy of the costs of climate change. But in all, each of these considerations can be collapsed into two categories that revolve around a set of outputs: costs and payoffs.
Reader Max Malikov shared with me some useful examples for visualizing the climate game. The first figure shows what a short-term assessment of climate policy might look like if there was no real threat to the environment. Acting to protect the environment is costly and has a limited benefit that is far outweighed by the benefit of simply using the environmental resources at maximum efficiency. So, in the example of Kentucky and West Virginia defection would mean both states opening up as many coal plants as possible to maximize energy output and profits. Neither state has an incentive to help protect the environment, especially in a market where the two neighbors compete against each other for jobs and productivity.
However, in the tragedy of the commons, exploitation of a resource inevitably makes the resource scarcer. In this case, the resource is not land or coal, but the sum of the ecosystem itself, which degrades in time as it is exploited and polluted. The payoff of exploitation diminishes to zero and protection becomes increasingly attractive. So eventually there will be a point—near environmental collapse—where every actor will get it together and actually protect the environment. In game theory, this scenario where coordination is clearly dominant over defection is called a “stag hunt.” Only, in this absurd scenario, that point would come fairly close to when the environment was already gone.
This simplification misses out on some things, and ideally a game could collapse some of the benefits and drawbacks of the environment in the present and future into a single model, even though risks will still change as we get closer to the environmental cliff, a concept that will itself take much time to define if it even exists. Also, it appears that some damage to the climate and environment is likely inevitable, and policies are only working at this point to mitigate future global temperature rise or emissions. Additionally, emissions policies have real cost in terms of direct investments and productivity losses.
Given these considerations, we might be able to make some adjustments to the matrix. Let’s say that right now, we estimate present and future costs of runaway climate change to be a ten on some arbitrary scale for each country. Using the example of the United States and China, let’s also assume that each country’s emissions policy can only mitigate the costs of climate change by three points that apply globally. So if the United States or China cuts emissions independently, the costs of climate change are reduced to seven. If both act, the costs are reduced to four. But emissions policies are also costly, and given the global nature of climate change, if one actor acts alone, generally the returns are diffuse compared to the costs. So let’s say the policy costs more than the benefit of one state’s contribution, or four points. The matrix now looks like this:
So the best option overall is for the two countries to work together. But the prospect of being faked out and the lure of gaining the benefits as a free rider with no investment (both the top right and the bottom left cells) mean that both sides will tend towards defecting, or continuing to exploit the environment at the rate they are currently going. This is the dominating strategy in a Prisoner’s Dilemma, which we discussed before. This scenario might become a stag hunt as the costs of climate change become more immediate, clear, and relatively high and the benefits of even small amounts of mitigation gain a higher relative payoff. The goal of much of diplomacy, green technology, and climate education is to turn the game into a stag hunt before the world gets too close to destruction. This involves increasing the payoff and reducing the cost of emissions mitigation and increasing the understanding—and thus, the inherent risk and relative costs—of climate change.
Did I miss anything or get anything wrong? Are there any assumptions that I missed that might change the nature of the game? Are there any questions or ideas on how to make this more sophisticated and better understand the examples? I am sifting through some reader feedback and research from experts to add to the analysis and get closer. As always, feel free to email me.
A peaceful transfer of power is necessary for American democracy to survive.
If Donald Trump is defeated in November 2020, his presidency will end on January 20, 2021. If he is reelected, then, barring other circumstances such as removal from office, his administration will terminate on the same day in 2025. In either of these scenarios, Trump would cease to be president immediately upon the expiration of his term. But what if he won’t leave the White House?
The American Constitution spells out how the transfer of power is supposed to work. Article II provides that the president “shall hold his office for the term of four years.” The 20th Amendment says that the president’s and vice president’s terms “shall end at noon on the 20th day of January … and the terms of their successors shall then begin.” Of course, a president may be reelected to a second four-year term, but under the 22nd Amendment, “no person shall be elected to the office of president more than twice.”
The family structure we’ve held up as the cultural ideal for the past half century has been a catastrophe for many. It’s time to figure out better ways to live together.
The scene is one many of us have somewhere in our family history: Dozens of people celebrating Thanksgiving or some other holiday around a makeshift stretch of family tables—siblings, cousins, aunts, uncles, great-aunts. The grandparents are telling the old family stories for the 37th time. “It was the most beautiful place you’ve ever seen in your life,” says one, remembering his first day in America. “There were lights everywhere … It was a celebration of light! I thought they were for me.”
The oldsters start squabbling about whose memory is better. “It was cold that day,” one says about some faraway memory. “What are you talking about? It was May, late May,” says another. The young children sit wide-eyed, absorbing family lore and trying to piece together the plotline of the generations.
After the Nevada caucus, Democratic Party leaders have never looked more uncertain about their future.
LAS VEGAS—The phrase Democratic establishment conjures images of something like the Illuminati with the power to determine the outcome of American elections. But so far, the supposedly all-powerful leaders of the party have been about as well organized as The Muppet Show.
Now, with Senator Bernie Sanders’s massive win in Nevada, he’s taken the lead in delegates and may never lose it. Efforts to stop him so far have been ineffective and made the party seem out of touch. This summer, party leaders may be forced to accept the nomination of a man who’s not officially a member of the party, who won’t have won a majority of primary voters, and whose agenda is popular with his progressive base but doesn’t have as much support with Democrats as a whole.
An out-of-sight, out-of-mind mentality can take hold when people lose their connection to nature.
My mother situated me on her hip, took a deep breath, and stepped off our porch into the icy floodwaters. I was 2 years old.
It was March 1974, and the rain had been pummeling Lily, Kentucky, for two weeks. The ground had become so saturated that the flash flood came all at once. By the time my mother had navigated us through the waist-high mix of overflowing creek water, sewage, and debris to higher ground, my father had made it home from work, where he found water reaching the windows of our trailer. Family members came to help and frantically piled some of our belongings into a metal rowboat. When the flood receded, my parents salvaged what they could, but after days of shoveling mud, they found that the floors, furnace, and appliances had been destroyed. My mother says this was the first time she ever saw my father, a Vietnam veteran and auto mechanic, cry.
Fling wide the plastic curtain, take a breath, and step right in.
Here’s what used to happen.
I’d wake up, smoldering and sighing, reel out of bed and into the kitchen, and put the kettle on. Then I’d think: Well, now what? Time would go granular, like in a Jack Reacher novel, but less exciting. Five minutes at least until the kettle boils. Make a decision. Crack the laptop, read the news. Or stare murkily out the window. Unload the dishwasher? Oh dear. Is this life, this sour weight, this baggage of consciousness? What’s that smell? It’s futility, rising in fumes around me. And all this before 7 a.m.
Here’s what happens now.
I wake up, smoldering and sighing, reel out of bed and into the kitchen, and put the kettle on. And then I have a cold shower.
Where socialism imagines greater concentrations of power, her vision ultimately points in the direction of a more decentralized, more competitive economy.
Despite all the newspaper endorsements, Senator Elizabeth Warren is an underappreciated politician—and the candidate herself is among the ranks of those who have sold her short. She is a deep and original political thinker. Over her time in academia and in the Senate, she has evolved a distinctive critique of American capitalism as presently practiced, and a lyrical vision of what might replace it. Based on her presidential campaign, however, you wouldn’t really know it.
While Warren has clashed with some of the candidates to her right—she chastised former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg for his foray into a wine cave and accused former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg of oligarchic tendencies—she has declined to truly delineate herself from Senator Bernie Sanders. The sharpest distinction Warren has drawn with her ally from Vermont is her gender. In a more accurate rendering of the pair, that is only the beginning of their differences.
Trump’s pardons were shocking to some, but to me they were eerily familiar—straight out of the kleptocratic playbook I’ve studied in a dozen other countries.
Donald Trump’s decision this week to pardon several Americans convicted of fraud or corruption has garnered condemnation from many in the political establishment. The pardons were shocking to some, but to me they were eerily familiar—straight out of the kleptocratic playbook I’ve experienced and studied in a dozen other countries.
I was immediately reminded, for instance, of an episode from August 2010. I had been living and working in Afghanistan for the better part of a decade, and was participating in an effort to push anti-corruption toward the center of the U.S. mission there. A long, carefully designed, and meticulously executed investigation culminated in the arrest of a palace aide on charges of extorting a bribe. But the man did not spend a single night in jail. Afghan President Hamid Karzai made a call; the aide was released; and the case was dropped.
How new technologies and techniques pioneered by dictators will shape the 2020 election
Updated at 2:30 p.m. ET on February 10, 2020.
One day last fall, I sat down to create a new Facebook account. I picked a forgettable name, snapped a profile pic with my face obscured, and clicked “Like” on the official pages of Donald Trump and his reelection campaign. Facebook’s algorithm prodded me to follow Ann Coulter, Fox Business, and a variety of fan pages with names like “In Trump We Trust.” I complied. I also gave my cellphone number to the Trump campaign, and joined a handful of private Facebook groups for MAGA diehards, one of which required an application that seemed designed to screen out interlopers.
The president’s reelection campaign was then in the midst of a multimillion-dollar ad blitz aimed at shaping Americans’ understanding of the recently launched impeachment proceedings. Thousands of micro-targeted ads had flooded the internet, portraying Trump as a heroic reformer cracking down on foreign corruption while Democrats plotted a coup. That this narrative bore little resemblance to reality seemed only to accelerate its spread. Right-wing websites amplified every claim. Pro-Trump forums teemed with conspiracy theories. An alternate information ecosystem was taking shape around the biggest news story in the country, and I wanted to see it from the inside.
China’s use of surveillance and censorship makes it harder for Xi Jinping to know what’s going on in his own country.
China is in the grip of a momentous crisis. The novel coronavirus that emerged late last year has already claimed three times more lives than the SARS outbreak in 2003, and it is still spreading. More than 50 million people (more than the combined metro populations of New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and San Francisco) remain under historically unprecedented lockdown, unable to leave their city—and in many cases, even their apartment. Many countries no longer accept visiting Chinese nationals, or if they do, quarantine them for weeks. Big companies are pulling out of trade shows. Production is suffering. Profound economic consequences are bound to ensue, not just in China but around the world.
The episodes in which critics’ predictions weren't borne out offer valuable lessons for Trump’s challengers, even if they still vigorously disagree with the moves the president has made.
It’s 2020, and America is embroiled in not one but two catastrophic wars: one with Iran that has sucked in the entire Middle East, and another halfway across the world in North Korea sparked by Kim Jong Un test-firing nuclear-capable missiles that could hit the United States. It’s all the worse since the U.S. is waging both wars without allies, all of which have abandoned Donald Trump because of his incessant bullying.
Fortunately, this isn’t where we find ourselves today, but it’s what the president’s critics have been warning could occur if he carries on with policies that have shattered decades of conventional U.S. policy making. It’s not as if their concerns have no factual basis. The Trump administration really did come to the brink of war with Iran and North Korea. In neither case are the underlying tensions that got them there anywhere near resolved. America’s alliances are indeed in flux. But the fact that this is not our reality in 2020 is just as instructive as the fact that it could have been.