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(This essay is an elaboration of Collective Action (and Time Horizon) Problems).

Imagine that I offered each person in a group the following deal: You can agree to give me $30, and in return I’ll give $10 to each and every person in the group, including you. I’ll give the $10 to everyone, whether they paid $30 or not, for each person that does pay $30.

Each person is faced with an offer to pay $30 dollars in return for, to him or her individually, $10, a bad deal for that individual (a loss of $20). But since everyone else in the group also each gets $10, for any group with a membership of more than three people, it is a bigger return to the group than cost to the group. If there are 10 people in the group, and everyone makes the deal, they each pay $30 and each get $100 in return, for a net gain of $70. However, if one doesn’t pay, he or she gets $90 outright (9 people taking the deal times $10 to each person in the group) while each of the others only get a net gain of $60 ($90 minus the $30 paid in). The individual incentive is not to pay in, even though everyone is better off the more people who do, with everyone coming out ahead if 3 or more people pay in. Those who don’t pay in, however, always do better than those who do (the “free rider problem”).

This dynamic is a major underlying force in the generation of social institutions, which to a large degree exist to overcome this collective action problem. There are many scenarios woven throughout our collective existence in which people benefit from some form of cooperation (even those forms that establish the rules for competition, such as the enforcement of property rights in service to the functioning of markets), but are tempted by individual incentives to cheat or fail to act cooperatively. Our laws, our contracts, our governments, our social norms, our ideologies, all are laden with mechanisms that have evolved with the purpose of creating mutual commitment mechanisms, enforced either externally by social institutions or internally to one’s own psychological make-up. Combined, they form social institutional technologies which are robust sets of memes self-replicating and spreading throughout our shared cognitive landscape (see the essays linked to in the first box at Catalogue of Selected Posts).

It has always been a dynamic at the heart of intertribal and international relations, in which sovereign societies must strategically interact in a world with limited international legal enforcement mechanisms. With increasing political, economic and cultural globalization, and information, communication and transportation technologies make the world ever smaller and more tightly integrated, examining these dynamics is one critical component of understanding the shared geopolitical landscape in which we live.

“The War of the Woods”:

Imagine that long ago, two countries, Apestonia and Pulgalandia, had a forest on their border. Both countries desperately needed the wood in the forest, because it was both their primary building material and their fuel. Each country was faced with the choice of either dividing the forest evenly, or attacking the other and trying to get more of the forest for themself.

There are 1000 acres of forest between the two countries. If the two countries agree to draw their border right through the middle of it, they can each have 500 acres of forest, which they both desperately need.

But if one attacks quickly while the other one is planning on sharing the forest evenly (and so isn’t prepared for war), the one that attacks will capture 700 acres of the forest, 300 acres will be burnt or destroyed during the fighting, and the other will get zero acres. Since they are militarily evenly matched, if they both attack each other at the same time, 400 acres of forest will be destroyed in the fighting, and they’ll each end up with 300 acres of forest.

Here’s a table that summarizes these choices and outcomes:

Pulgalandia Apestonia Cooperate(don’t attack) Don’t Cooperate(attack) Cooperate

(don’t attack) Apestonia: 500 Acres

Pulgalandia: 500 Acres Apestonia: 0 Acres

Pulgalandia: 700 Acres Don’t Cooperate

(attack) Apestonia: 700 Acres

Pulgalandia: 0 Acres Apestonia: 300 Acres

Pulgalandia: 300 Acres

Each country faces the following logic: “We don’t know what the other country will do. If they decide to cooperate (not attack first), we will get 500 acres if we also cooperate, but 700 acres if we don’t (if we attack unprovoked). Therefore, if they cooperate, we are better off not cooperating (attacking). If they decide not to cooperate (to attack), then we will get zero acres if we cooperate (don’t attack), but 300 acres if we don’t (if we attack). Therefore, no matter what the other country does, we are better off attacking.”

However, if both countries follow that logic, they each end up with 300 acres, though if they had cooperated and split the forest, they would have each ended up with 500 acres. So, while each country has an incentive to attack, if they can find a way to commit one another to cooperation, they both benefit.

So, even though they have a conflict over the forest, they have a shared interest in finding a way to commit one another to cooperating for mutual benefit. This is often the case, with war being costly in blood and treasure, and peaceful coexistence (and even mutually beneficial exchange) being far more conducive to general prosperity.

Historically, real tribes and countries have faced this challenge. Some have said, “Okay, let’s agree to cooperate, and to make sure no one cheats, we’ll exchange hostages.” And then each country would send an important member of their own society (often the ruler’s daughter to be raised by the other ruler as his or her own) to go live with the other society, so that if either cheats, that hostage can be killed in retaliation. Later, countries sent the children of royalty to marry the children of royalty in other countries, sort of as “permanent hostages,” but also to bind the countries together so that they can act more cooperatively.

In the modern world, we’ve developed a much more elaborate system of international diplomacy, with embassies in each other’s countries, and treaties, and international organizations (like the United Nations). The European Union, whose roots go back to post-WWII efforts to create economic ties that would diminish the chances of resumed warfare, is perhaps the most advanced example of emerging international political economic consolidation

Not just internationally, but within nations, overcoming this collective action problem is a big part of why we’ve created many of the social institutions we’ve created. Our Constitution, our laws, even our religions, have developed in many ways to help make it easier for people to commit one another to mutually beneficial actions even when they have individual incentives to cheat or act in non-cooperative ways.

With modern technologies, modern weapons (such as nuclear weapons), modern transportation and communication technologies, an increasingly global economy, increasingly global environmental and natural resource issues, all nations in the world face many collective action problems. Our increasing political globalization is a complex tapestry of conflict and cooperation woven within this underlying logic.

So far, we’ve assumed that the countries were equally matched, and looked at the cost-benefit analysis of each when considering whether to attack the other or to live in peace. But what if they weren’t evenly matched? What if one was militarily stronger than the other? How would that change things?

If Apestonia were more powerful than Pulgalandia, then Apestonia would capture more forest than Pulgalandia would if the two went to war. If Apestonia were to attack first, perhaps it would capture the whole forest against the weaker Pulgalandia, losing only a small portion (let’s say a tenth) in battle. This outcome can be seen in the lower-left square of the two-by-two table, in which Apestonia attacks first and captures 900 acres, while Pulgalandia ends up with zero.

Conversely, if Pulgalandia attacks first, it will gain the advantage of surprise, but will still be facing a superior force, and might manage to capture and control 300 acres against Apestonia’s 500, 200 being lost to the destruction of war. This outcome is summarized in the upper-right square.

Pulgalandia Apestonia Cooperate(don’t attack) Don’t Cooperate (attack) Cooperate

(don’t attack) Apestonia: 800 Acres

Pulgalandia: 200 Acres Apestonia: 500 Acres

Pulgalandia: 300 Acres Don’t Cooperate

(attack) Apestonia: 900 Acres

Pulgalandia: 0 Acres Apestonia: 600 Acres

Pulgalandia: 100 Acres

If they both attack each other at the same time, more forest will be lost to the destruction of battle, and neither will have the benefit of surprise, but Apestonia will still come out ahead. This is reflected in the lower-right square.

Because of the difference in power, when they negotiate a peace in which neither attacks, Apestonia can demand more of the forest than Pulgalandia. This is reflected in the upper-left square.

The logic that the two countries face is still similar to the logic that they faced when equally powerful. Neither knows what the other will do. Apestonia says to itself, “If Pulgalandia cooperates (doesn’t attack), we can get 800 acres for also cooperating (not attacking), or 900 acres for attacking. If Pulgalandia doesn’t attack, we are better off attacking. If Pulgalandia does attack, we can get 500 acres for not attacking first (only reacting to their attack), and 600 for attacking first, so, again, we are better off attacking. No matter what Pulgalandia does, we’re better off attacking.

Similarly, Pulgalandia is better off attacking no matter what Apestonia do. They say to themselves, “If Apestonia doesn’t attack first, we get 200 acres for also not attacking, but 300 for attacking, and if Apestonia does attack first, we get zero acres for not having attacked at the same time but 100 acres for having attacked at the same time. Either way, we’re better off attacking.”

But they both know this, and both know that they’d be better off not attacking one another. So, just as before, they need to invest in some way of committing one another to cooperation.

But the pay-offs can look different as well. It may be that, while the weaker Pulgalandia has incentives to attack no matter what the stronger Apestonia does, Apestonia gets a stronger benefit from cooperation. In the chart below, Pulgalandia still is better off attacking no matter what Apestonia does, and Apestonia, knowing that, knows it has to attack to get 550 rather than 500 acres. This is reflected in the table below:

Pulgalandia Apestonia Cooperate(don’t attack) Don’t Cooperate (attack) Cooperate

(don’t attack) Apestonia: 800 Acres

Pulgalandia: 200 Acres Apestonia: 500 Acres

Pulgalandia: 250 Acres Don’t Cooperate

(attack) Apestonia: 650 Acres

Pulgalandia: 100 Acres Apestonia: 550 Acres

Pulgalandia: 200 Acres

But the most Pulgalandia can possibly get is 250 acres, if they attack before Apestonia does. Apestonia can just say, “look, we’ll give you 300 acres, 50 more than you can possibly get by attacking us. We’ll keep 700, which is more than we can get in any other way. If you attack, even while we are planning on cooperating with you, you lose 50 acres. You have no reason to attack, and we’re both better off than we can otherwise be.”

This is reflected in the table below, in which neither country has any incentive to do anything other than cooperate:

Pulgalandia Apestonia Cooperate(don’t attack) Don’t Cooperate (attack) Cooperate

(don’t attack) Apestonia: 700 Acres

Pulgalandia: 300 Acres Apestonia: 500 Acres

Pulgalandia: 250 Acres Don’t Cooperate

(attack) Apestonia: 650 Acres

Pulgalandia: 100 Acres Apestonia: 550 Acres

Pulgalandia: 200 Acres

This is an illustration of how power is exercised among nations (or factions within a nation), even without having to exert any military force at all to do it. Nations know their relative power to one another, and when they negotiate treaties and deals they negotiate agreements that favor the more powerful. When the United States was formed, the more powerful (populous) states made sure that their power was reflected in the new government (by having representatives in Congress proportional to their population). When the United Nations charter was drafted, the most powerful nations insisted on forming a “security council,” that had far more power over the organization than other nations did.

Weak nations sometimes have the power of threatening to create problems for stronger nations, and thus get concessions to keep them calm. But nations also sometimes have leaders or governments that cease to act rationally, like the current government of North Korea seems to not be acting rationally.

Of course, if, in the end, the United States, worried about an irrational nuclear armed North Korea, gives them large amounts of aid to keep them from causing problems, then it will have turned out that North Korea’s “craziness” was pretty smart after all…. Strategies that “trump” rational considerations can be very rational strategies, including various ways of binding oneself to a limited range of options in order to increase one’s own bargaining power, or behaving in ways which make an opponent question one’s rationality in order to make them more accommodating for fear of erratic responses.

The scenarios presented above are highly simplified, leaving out many factors, such as uncertainty (real actors in such situations don’t know what the exact outcomes of various combinations of choices will be), more complexity in available options (not just binary choices), more interacting actors (not just two), more conflated issues being bargained over (not just a single resource), more costs and benefits to be considered (not just the amount of that single resource gained or lost), factional conflict across levels (different interest groups and political parties vying for different outcomes due to differing material interests and political ideological orientations), less centralized decision-making (not a single ruler making unlimited autocratic decisions, but rather in various ways collective decision-making processes impinging on the negotiations between actors constituted in that way), and various intrusions of emotional and irrational considerations, that even rational actors have to take into account.

But the complexity of the real world does not mean that abstraction from it is not a helpful tool in understanding underlying dynamics. Rather, it is a way of isolating individual dimensions of those underlying dynamics, gradually adding in enough of the complexity to begin to capture a deeper and subtler understanding of how our social institutional landscape really functions.

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One of the underlying and defining dynamics of our social institutional landscape is the interplay of centripetal and centrifugal social forces that simultaneously are pushing us together and pulling us apart, across levels and in overlapping configurations. Neither is inherently good nor inherently evil, though system-wide imbalances in one or both directions undermine rather than contribute to the production of human welfare.

Centripetal forces are necessary to sow and reap the fruits of cooperation, of coordinated efforts, of being members of a society. All of our social institutions are primarily instruments of cohesion, at least on one level, while they may be instruments of violent conflict, or social disarticulation, on a higher level (national militaries are a good example), or of controlled conflict, or social decentralization, on a higher or lower level (competitive markets are a good example). Just as teams compete in leagues, corporations compete in a market economy, and nations compete in a global contest with emergent and precarious rules. Alliances form, symbiotic relationships, client-patron configurations, and fault lines among them, where animosities are more noticable than amistades. But all relationships, from the most intimate to the most belligerent, are characterized by some combination of convergent and divergent interests, and by some combination of cooperation and conflict.

Conflict can be energizing, a catalyst for innovation. Military conflict, for instance, has possibly been the single most robust historical catalyst for both technological and social organizational innovations. Economic competition is well known for its robustness. But it is social organization, the creation of coherence and cooperation, that reaps those benefits.

In terms of the pursuit of interests, these two social forces, centripetal and centrifugal, determine effectiveness, for in any social entity competing with others (e.g., nations with nations, corporations with corporations, political parties with political parties), too little organizational coherence dooms the social entity to impotence and defeat, while too much dooms both those within it to excessive subjugation to organizational or authoritarian will, and the organization itself to lethargy and ossification.

Members of organized groups can, intentionally or unintentionally, catalize either force, centripetal or centrifugal, either beneficially or detrimentally for the group itself, and either beneficially or detrimentally for other groups with which it interacts. For instance, some forms of solidarity are oppressive within and/or predatory without, while others are more liberating within and/or more amenable to partnerships without. For maximum benefit to group members, network ties need to bind those within the group into a coherent whole, avoid binding members of sub-groups within it so tightly that they in effect secede from the main group, and form and maintain bonds across group boundaries, if generally fewer and weaker than those within groups, then at least sufficient to create a basis for communication, coordination, and cooperation.

A group that becomes too “coherent,” with tight cognitive and social bonds within but too few such bonds without, can become predatory (as, for instance, Nazi Germany was), while  sub-groups that become too rebellious and demanding undermine the ability of the overarching group to act effectively in its competition with other similar groups. (Economist Mancur Olsen wrote a book in the 1970’s or 80’s called The Rise and Decline of Nations, discussing the enervating effects of too much time and energy being diverted from economically productive activities to distributional struggles, and used it to provide an explanation of the paradoxical economic phenomenon of “stagflation”).

In fact, implicit and explicit alliances between internal dissenters and external belligerents are frequent in human history, even when they are ideological opposites (e.g., the Bolsheviks and the Germans during World War I, when the latter funded and assisted the former in order to weaken and distract Russia from within while they attacked Russia from without; or, in an example of greater ideological compatability, the French alliance with the American Colonies, in which the French assisted the colonies in order to weaken Great Britain from within while continuing to engage in sporadic military conflicts with Great Britain from without).

We see such an implicit alliance today in modern American partisan politics. On the left, there are those who are trying to disarticulate the Democratic Party, just as the far right is ascendent with a passionate social movement. By doing so, that faction with the Democratic Party is inadvertently contributing to the success of that far-right social movement, rather than to the reform of their own party that it is their intent to effectuate (Damned If You Do, Damned If You Don’t: Why Our Tea Party Future Will Be The Left’s Fault).

One of the factors that will contribute to Democratic Party losses in Congress (and in state governorships and state legislatures and local governments) in the 2010 midtern elections is occasionally organized, somewhat coherent disenchantment with the pace and boldness of legislation pursued by our Democratic President and Democratic majorities in both Houses of Congress. When the disenchantment rises to the level that they are declining to vote, then it is quite analogous to an implicit alliance with the far right in the latter’s take over of the country, contributing to the centrifugal forces of their own party at the very moment when highly passionate centripetal forces are mobilizing a sufficiently coherent far-right movement to effect a major shift in the distribution of political power.

While competing ideologies tend to explicitly emphasize either more coherence or more disarticulation, in reality, they are all jumbles of the two. The Tea Party is all about “liberty” and individualism, but its members are also more inclined to be highly nationalistic, moralistic, and militaristic. Progressives are all about using government to address social issues and invest in our collective welfare, but also emphasizes civil rights and multiculturalism.

The distinguishing traits between conpeting political parties do not actually involve a consistent commitment to either more social cohesion or less, but rather to more empathy or less. The right coheres around aggression and authoritarianism (in order to defeat others), while the left coheres around human welfare (in order to enrich all). The right disarticulates in order to possess and exclude, while the left disarticulates in order to enjoy and permit.

But, for both, discipline determines effectiveness, a discipline which either permits or does not permit internal discord, but which always contextualizes it in terms of internal consolidation. The United States began with a document that facilitated only discord, and not cooperation (The Articles of Confederation). It drafted a new one, that contextualized individual and states rights within the context of a strong federal government.

The ultimate goal is to create an optimal distribution of centralization and decentralization, neither too much nor too little of either, at any level of social organization. The future belongs to those, whether nations on the world state or political parties on the national stage, who are able to consolidate with enough discipline to compete with others who have done so. Factions that preach against compromise within the more liberal or progressive political parties are also, in effect, fighting to diminish the efficacy of their party.

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Some recent on-line interactions, and many that came before, have brought home the importance of addressing the role that anger plays in political discourse. There are many dimensions to the problem (and I do see it as a problem), involving both empathy and narcissism, fragile egos and legitimate concerns.

First, a disclaimer: I do not consider myself either immune to or innocent of the expression of anger in political discourse. This is not one of those political divides with some people on one side and some on the other, but rather one in which aspects of each of us can be found on either side of the divide, with some individuals more to one side than the other.

This is not a problem that belongs exclusively to one ideological camp or another: Within the last week, I’ve been angrily lambasted by two ideologues, one on the left and one on the right, cascades of enraged pejoratives issuing forth from each, each upset with me for disputing their respective highly combative certainties. The problem, as I repeatedly tried to tell them both, isn’t the ideology, but the attitude. It may be that the attitude correlates more strongly with one ideology or another, but that is not the relevant point; rather, the attitude, wherever it occurs, is toxic, and far more of an obstruction to progress than the substance of any particular ideology.

Still, there are legitimate questions involved: Is anger ever useful? Does it ever serve an indispensible political or social function, motivating people who would otherwise be unable to motivate themselves, or disincentivizing behaviors that are on the wrong side of such reactions? If so, to what extent and under what circumstances? Is anger ever the best possible reaction? Or is it sometimes the best attainable reaction, even if not the best imaginable? Or is it simply dysfunctional, in all circumstances?

A moderate, reasonable poster on a Facebook thread where the angry left-wing ideologue tried to convince Democrats not to vote for Democratic candidates in protest of their not being pure enough for him, gently praised his anger, while opposing his call to inaction. She viewed his anger as a productive, motivating force, putting the feet of the powerful to the fire. This may be the case sometimes, but I think it is grossly exaggerated, and more often an excuse for engaging in something for the most part dysfunctional.

First, we exaggerate the degree to which our public officials are “the other,” serving their own interests at our expense. While there is certainly some of that, I think it is far more often the case that our public officials are sincerely dedicated to some view of what produces the greatest public good, and are passionately working in service to that agenda. More often than not, public service involves accepting a salary well below one’s earning potential (though there are arguably much larger long-term financial benefits), and certainly far more public scrutiny and constraint of personal liberty and personal space than adheres to work in the private sector, or in lower-profile positions. Some of this is off-set by the honor involved, by the prestige conferred, but being an elected official is not an unambiguous boon for those who successfully pursue that path.

Second, the ideological certainties that spark inter- or intra-partisan public anger with elected officials, on average, are wrong more often than they are right (I am not including anger over alleged ethical breaches, which is not the issue here). If we assume, generously, that in interpartisan disputes, one side is on balance wrong and one side is on balance right in any given instance (it may often be the case that both sides are on balance wrong, though it is almost impossible for both sides to be on balance right), then the split between false certainties and justified outrage would be about 50-50. But the intraparty ideological disputes reduce the portion of those who are “right” into some balance of those who are right and those who are wrong once again, leaving significantly more than 50% of the individual instances of angry certainty in the wrong on the substance of the matter (even disregarding the disutility of the form, in those instances in which individuals are in the right on the substance of the matter).

So, if we all employ righteous anger on behalf of those positions we are each absolutely certain are the right positions to advocate, more righteous anger, on average, is being deployed on behalf of positions erroneously held than on behalf of well-founded ones. The Czech author Milan Kundera, in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, captured both this, and the more general dysfunctionality of anger even when right, by putting in the mouth of his main character, observing an angry protest in Paris, “Don’t they understand that the raised fists are the problem?”

I’ve argued in another post (The Foundational Progressive Agenda: that humility is the necessary cure for this defect in our discourse: We have to each strive to recognize, especially in matters that are contested by large segments of our society, that, in any given instance, what we are certain is true may not be, and that by each admitting that, we open up greater opportunities to approach, together, understandings that are closer to the truth.

The perennial counterargument to this, of course, is “but they’re not willing to do this, so by doing so unilaterally, we only weaken ourselves.” I don’t believe that this is accurate (of course, I may be wrong! :)); I believe that those who argue with the most reason, goodwill, and humility are, in the long-run, the most attractive to the persuadable majority, and provide the best and most useful contrast to the unmovable ideological zealots who have almost always dominated public discourse.

What anger does is to divide and entrench us, to divert more of our energies to non-productive conflict and away from productive efforts to serve human needs. The inevitable conflict over how best to govern ourselves, in general and particular, serves us best when it is least rancorous, and most rational. The commitment to striving to be reasonable, humble people of goodwill is the cornerstone of such constructive public discourse. Anger, both within and without, is our common enemy.

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