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.
Nothing in Marie Yovanovitch’s testimony had directly added to the Democrats’ case for removal. Then the president stepped in.
As they present their findings to the public, House Democrats may find it easier to let President Donald Trump build the case for impeachment himself.
The testimony that Marie Yovanovitch, the former ambassador to Ukraine, delivered to Congress this morning was perhaps as politically damaging to Trump as anything presented during the first day of House impeachment hearings, on Wednesday. In a quiet but firm voice, she described how “a smear campaign” orchestrated by the president’s allies led to her abrupt dismissal as ambassador, and how “the color drained from my face” when she read a transcript of Trump bashing her in a phone call with Ukraine’s new president, Volodymyr Zelensky. “It sounded like a threat,” Yovanovitch said, referring to the president’s comment that she would “go through some things.”
As age factors more urgently in politics, a simple test could evaluate who remains fit for office.
Remember these numbers. You’ll be asked about them at the end of the test: 70, 73, 76, and 78.
These are the ages of the leading candidates in the 2020 presidential election: Elizabeth Warren, Donald Trump, Joe Biden, and Bernie Sanders, respectively. In most any other line of work, people in their eighth decade are usually retired. For most of human history—and still in most of the world today—people of this age were usually dead.
Last month, Jimmy Carter, the 95-year-old former U.S. president, said that the office requires a person “to be very flexible with [one’s] mind,” and that by age 80 he wouldn’t have felt able to do the job. He joined the growing ranks of those suggesting they would support an upper age limit for the office, either for purposes of breaking up the gerontocracy or to ensure a person has the physical and cognitive capacity. “You have to be able to go from one subject to another and concentrate on each one adequately and then put them together in a comprehensive way,” Carter said.
The candidate has learned to kill the professor within, by going after billionaires.
My colleague Megan Garber spoke up on Wednesday in defense of anger, a quality whose presence in a female presidential candidate gets her branded as hysterical and shrill, and whose absence, paradoxically, marks her as frosty and robotic. (Angry men are just “fired up”; angerless ones are “cerebral.” There are exceptions: Critics penalized Howard Dean for being a rage-monster and Michael Dukakis for being a passionless wuss.) The angry woman in this round is Elizabeth Warren, whose anger—mainly directed at billionaires—is becoming a signature quality.
I have been pessimistic about Warren’s chances, not because of her anger, but because of her apparent lack of a crucial quality that distinguishes successful presidential candidates, namely that they should be completely insane. The stresses of a campaign would be enough to make a normal person quit. Warren is scrutinized literally down to her genome, and the worst people in the world are scheming to defame her. The prize in this contest is the most burdensome job ever devised, one self-evidently worse than that of a tenured law professor at Harvard University. As a Richard North Patterson character put it:
A chemist once at the center of an era-defining sports scandal now is eager to improve your health.
After 30 minutes, the rat should have been dead. Sealed in a capsule-shaped chamber, the animal was breathing pure oxygen at a pressure high enough to cause a normal rat to have a seizure in five to 10 minutes. Dominic D’Agostino, a researcher at the University of South Florida, stood by, ready to flush the chamber with fresh air and rescue the creature at the first signs of a problem. But 30 minutes became 40 minutes, and still the rat appeared unbothered. At an hour, D’Agostino could only gaze at it on a video monitor with wonder. “The rat was just kind of staring back at us and grooming itself,” he says.
Shortly before placing the rat inside the chamber, D’Agostino had injected a new, one-of-a-kind molecule down the animal’s throat. Much of D’Agostino’s work is funded by the U.S. Department of Defense’s Office of Naval Research, and this experiment, which he conducted in mid-2011, was his first test of whether the new molecule could help a rat withstand an onslaught of oxygen. The hope was to one day do the same for Navy divers, who can experience devastating oxygen-toxicity seizures on deep dives.
A tectonic demographic shift is under way. Can the country hold together?
Democracy depends on the consent of the losers. For most of the 20th century, parties and candidates in the United States have competed in elections with the understanding that electoral defeats are neither permanent nor intolerable. The losers could accept the result, adjust their ideas and coalitions, and move on to fight in the next election. Ideas and policies would be contested, sometimes viciously, but however heated the rhetoric got, defeat was not generally equated with political annihilation. The stakes could feel high, but rarely existential. In recent years, however, beginning before the election of Donald Trump and accelerating since, that has changed.
The latest volley in a decades-long debate about apes’ theory of mind involved one scientist dressing up as King Kong and stealing from his colleague.
In the pursuit of new knowledge, some scientists explore other worlds, discover new species, and develop cures for disease. Others film themselves being robbed by a colleague in a King Kong suit, to address a debate that’s been raging for more than 40 years.
Bedecked in ape cosplay, Satoshi Hirata from Kyoto University would grab a stone from his uncostumed colleague, Fumihiro Kano, and hide it under one of two boxes, all while Kano watched in mock indignation. Then, after Kano ducked behind a door, “Kong” would surreptitiously move the stolen stone to the second box. The duo filmed these shenanigans and then showed the videos to several chimpanzees, bonobos, and orangutans. They wanted to know how what the apes made of the scene. Specifically, when Kano returned and began looking for his stone, which box did the apes think he’d search first?
Suppose that the biblical story of Creation were true: God created the universe in six days, including all the laws of physics and all the physical constants that apply throughout the universe. Now imagine that one day, in the early 21st century, God became bored and, just for fun, doubled the gravitational constant. What would it be like to live through such a change? We’d all be pulled toward the floor; many buildings would collapse; birds would fall from the sky; the Earth would move closer to the sun, reestablishing orbit in a far hotter zone.
Let’s rerun this thought experiment in the social and political world, rather than the physical one. The U.S. Constitution was an exercise in intelligent design. The Founding Fathers knew that most previous democracies had been unstable and short-lived. But they were excellent psychologists, and they strove to create institutions and procedures that would work with human nature to resist the forces that had torn apart so many other attempts at self-governance.
A record-setting acqua alta has left much of Venice submerged, following stormy conditions blowing in from the Adriatic Sea.
Yesterday, strong winds and rainstorms pushed water levels in Venice, Italy, to the second-highest levels ever recorded. The high-water mark hit 74 inches (187 centimeters), just short of the record set in 1966. This exceptional acqua alta has flooded businesses and historic structures, sank boats, and been blamed for one death so far.
The GOP operative and self-described “dirty trickster,” who was convicted today, has been a presence in the president’s life for more than 30 years.
Roger Stone, the famed political consultant, seems to have played a role in every major conservative moment in the past half century. And if one quality has defined his long career in politics, it’s that he’s prone to scandal of his own making.
Enter the Russia investigation. Today, Stone was found guilty of lying to the House Intelligence Committee and trying to obstruct its investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.
Though the criminal conviction is a first for Stone, he’s used to controversy: One of the pioneers of opposition research, the self-described “dirty trickster” and Richard Nixon acolyte has built his reputation on a combative, conspiracy-theory-laden brand of politics. Here, a brief history of Stone’s political mischief-making:
The overcrowded Moria refugee camp in Greece is where Europe’s ideals—solidarity, human rights, a haven for victims of war and violence—dissolve in a tangle of bureaucracy, indifference, and lack of political will.
MORIA, Greece—From the olive grove just outside the high cement wall—one topped with spirals of razor wire, enclosing one of Europe’s most infamous holding pens for asylum seekers—you can see all the way clear to the Aegean Sea, gray-blue in the distance. It’s a straight shot across the water to Turkey, just six miles away at the narrowest stretch, an ancient Dardanelles trade route.
Moria, on the Greek island of Lesbos, is a symbolic place—a hinge between the Middle East and Europe, the eye of the needle through which migrants must pass as they travel from east to west, a pressure point between Istanbul and Brussels. It is where the collateral damage of contemporary history—Afghanistan, Syria, Turkey—crosses the threshold into Europe. Moria is where geopolitics becomes European politics becomes national politics. Every new arrival here could one day translate into rising poll numbers for right-wing parties across the Continent, parties divided by language and culture that find common ground in wanting to block these humans from entering.