Welcome to my blog, Satyagraha. I hope you find the material here of interest. For more about me and the blog, click here.
A few months ago, in June 2013, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences released a report ‘The Heart of the Matter‘ addressing the state of the humanities and social sciences in the United States today. Its conclusions were expressed as three main goals: (1) to “educate Americans in the knowledge, skills, and understanding they will need to thrive in a twenty-first-century democracy;” (2) to “foster a society that is innovative, competitive, and strong;” and (3) to “equip the nation for leadership in an interconnected world.”
The first recommendation made in connection with Goal 1 was to support “full literacy,” meaning by that an advancement of not just reading ability, but also of the critical thinking and communication skills required of citizens in a thriving democracy. That this is an excellent suggestion no one would dispute. The first recommendation associated with Goal 3 was to promote foreign language education, to enable Americans to enlarge their cultural perspective. Again this is an excellent and welcome suggestion.
But here we have exhausted the list of the high points. The remainder of the report is filled with such dubious assumptions and faulty reasoning that even the hungriest humanities teacher, clutching at the report as a sign of hope against the increasingly narrow emphasis on science and technology in our education system, ought to be circumspect in heralding it as a great stride forward.
The Cart Before the Horse
The fundamental problem with the report, as I see it, is that it has reversed the traditional ends and means of the humanities (and, by extension, of the social sciences, to the extent that both have similar goals; I shall herein, however, mainly address myself to the humanities). The principle feature of the humanities is, almost by definition (that is, to the extent that ‘humanities’ mean the same thing as ‘Humanism’), that, in the best meaning of the phrase, the proper concern of man is man: that what we are really aiming at is human happiness and self-actualization; to empower man, to achieve the telos latent in his potentialities; to obtain what the ancients simply called the good life or beata vita. Now as to what constitutes this good life, of course, there is some disagreement; but there is also considerable agreement: we seek a life where human beings are healthy, have ample leisure time, opportunities for education, where they enjoy the arts, study and practice philosophy, and so on.
In the modern era it has become an unquestioned assumption that we should also advance technology at a brisk pace, and, partly as a means of doing this, that our commercial economies should be robust and growing as well. I tend to agree with this view, personally. Yet where I evidently part company with the authors of the AAAS report is that I see the latter of these two goals – technological and economic advancement – as subordinate to the primary goal of obtaining ‘the good life’. That is, to the extent that technological and economic growth gives us anti-malaria vaccines, freedom from hunger, computers, solar energy, digital classical music, open access online libraries, and so on, it is good. But when it means pollution, constant stress and anxiety, urban sprawl, perpetual war, corporation-run government, and a long commute to and from a mindless job pushing papers in a cubicle all day long merely to earn enough money to continue on the treadmill, then I think we have ample grounds for doubt, and to consider forging for ourselves a new vision of society. May we put wage slavery and mass consumerism on the table as negotiable, and consider organizing our society for the 21st century and beyond in some more favorable way?
The gaping hole in the report’s logic is that it presents, apparently without the authors’ having any cognizance of its absurdity, if not outright danger, that we should improve the humanities in order to improve our economies, when it ought to be the other way around. We are told that we should increase spending on the humanities and social sciences so that we may have “an adaptable and creative workforce”, and that, presumably to counter the economic threat posed by China or other developing nations, we need “a new ‘National Competitiveness Act’”, which is somehow supposed to be “like the original National Defense Education Act.”
That the authors would so deftly and unhesitatingly leap from “competitiveness” to “national defense” – and all in a report addressing the humanities and social sciences – ought by itself to alert us that something is not quite right. But lest there be any doubt, we need only consult the flag-draped cover to learn that we need the humanities and social sciences “for a vibrant, competitive, and secure nation.” [underscore added] There you have it: we need the humanities and social sciences for national security. Do your duty: Uncle Sam wants you to read Shakespeare! How else can we defeat the infidel third-world hordes greedily eyeing our huge piece of the global economic pie? The world economy belongs to America, and our ticket to continued hegemony is the Humanities!
On page 59 we are treated to a photo of a US soldier in full combat gear who looks like he might be instructing his comrades in the finer nuances of Afghan culture and how to persuade the locals to rat-out the Taliban. Yes, definitely expand our Mid-Asian Studies programs, so that our future military occupations might be more effective than they have been of late. Or maybe the idea is that by studying foreign cultures better, we’ll have more success in instigating, funding, and arming rebel insurgencies to displace regimes antithetical to our economic interests.
Materialism vs. Idealism
The tragedy of the report is that it seeks to promote the humanities without the vaguest idea of what Humanism is, or even an awareness that this is something people have made some serious effort to define over previous decades, centuries, and millennia. Now, to my mind – and I’m scarcely alone in this opinion – Humanism of necessity implies some sort of transcendent orientation. What makes human beings distinct and unique in the order of creation is that they are not only material, biological organisms, but contain something divine. This is the classical, the Renaissance, and the religious basis of Humanism. Not all humanists would agree, and I respect that. But at least could we agree to acknowledge that the effort to define Humanism is something that ought to occupy our attention? Is it asking too much to cite at least a single book, report, or article on the topic in a report that presents itself to be expert and authoritative? I would rather see Matthew Arnold, Cardinal Newman, or Plato in the bibliography than Emmy-Lou Harris, George Lucas, and John Lithgow in the panel of experts whom the report consulted.
We are told, for example, nothing of the 1984 National Endowment for the Humanities report (‘To Reclaim a Legacy: A Report on the Humanities in Higher Education’) authored by William J. Bennett. That report, while not as lavishly produced as the present one, nonetheless had a little more intellectual heft, at least insofar as it connected itself with traditional principles of Humanism, classics, and liberal education. A natural question to ask is whether the effort to renew the humanities initiated by the 1984 report worked. Apparently not too well, or we wouldn’t need a new initiative. But unless we look at that earlier report and examine what happened since, how can we understand what went wrong (or right), or know whether the present plan will fare better?
Despite a bit of lip service paid to ethics and morals, the values of the report are materialistic and mercenary. Small wonder, then, that the solution proposed is to throw more money at the problem. We’ll buy back the heart and soul of America. But did it ever occur to the authors that we already have the raw materials for a new cultural renaissance, and that what is wrong is not lack of money but wrong values? Instead of throwing money at the problem, couldn’t we simply persuade people to start reading Great Books? And without a prior shift in fundamental values, how can simply funding interdisciplinary research centers or developing a “Culture Corps” (yes, they seriously proposed that) accomplish anything?
A more minor point, but one nevertheless worth making, is how suavely the report dismisses the tuition and student loan crisis in the country today. Not a crisis, we’re informed; more like an inconvenience. The point the authors miss is the effect that placing college students deeply in debt has on their educational goals. One’s not likely to pay off a $75,000 student loan any time soon by majoring in American literature or ancient history. And the debt-burdened graduate isn’t likely to wander around Europe or Asia for the sheer pleasure of broadening ones cultural horizons. Better to major in accounting and hope to land a job with Bank of America.
Ironically, the report succeeds, after a fashion, in its failure. Its deficiencies themselves speak volumes about the decline of the humanities in the American university system. The report is the product of a higher education industry that has systemically neglected liberal education for at least 100 years. That we need to address this problem is abundantly clear. But to give more money to an education system not wise enough to understand what the humanities are and mean scarcely seems like the answer.
The report is all window dressing and the only real message is “give us money.” But the heart is not bought.
Re: ** Your Response Concerning Syria **
Dear Rep. Lois Capps
California’s 24th US Congressional District
Thank you for informing me of your position on Syria.
May I remind you:
1. That there is a legitimate possibility that the Syrian rebels were responsible for the use of sarin gas in a Damascus suburb recently, with the precise intent of drawing the US into the conflict. And that the UN investigators have not made their report. And that it is foolish in the utmost for the Obama administration to commit itself before sufficient data are available with which to draw reliable conclusions.
2. That there is near unanimous consensus that the figure of 1,429 deaths is exaggerated, and that the actual number killed is significantly lower.
3. That even if there is a moral imperative to address the use of nerve gas in Syria, there is *not* a moral imperative for the US to act precipitously and unilaterally. Indeed, there *is* a moral imperative to respond in a responsible way, namely by dealing with the problem as one member of a community of nations.
4. There are far worse humanitarian calamities, such as mass starvation, which the US government pays no attention to. And that this double-standard reveals that President Obama is using the recent sarin gas event as a pretext for military intervention motivated for other reasons.
5. That in any case there is no such thing as a limited military action. Mission creep is a brute fact. Once released, there is no calling back the dogs of war, and one would be both extremely naive and ignorant of history to believe otherwise.
Text of letter:
Dear John Uebersax:
Thank you for contacting me to express your opposition to U.S. military involvement in Syria. As your Representative, I appreciate hearing from you.
This is a deeply troubling and complex issue. As you know, several reports revealed the use of chemical weapons in the ongoing conflict between the Assad regime and armed rebel forces in Syria. On August 30th, the White House released an unclassified summary of U.S. intelligence reports, which assessed the Syrian government’s mass use of chemical weapons on a Damascus suburb, as well as other smaller suspected chemical weapon attacks. The assessment determined the most recent attack on August 21st resulted in approximately 1,429 deaths, including at least 426 children. In addition to the unclassified evidence released by the Administration, I have since reviewed further evidence regarding the attacks through classified briefings in Washington.
Clearly, the Assad regime’s deployment of chemical weapons violates a long standing international norm, in place for nearly 100 years, that has greatly deterred their use. The question before me is what actions should the U.S. take to reduce the likelihood of those weapons being used again in Syria and by others in the future. As such, I am reviewing the Administration’s proposal for targeted action in Syria very carefully, including meeting with government, military and foreign policy experts, but I have yet to determine whether this action would achieve that goal. As someone who voted against the Iraq war, I believe that any commitment of U.S. military forces must always be considered with the greatest of care and, furthermore, be the last resort to achieving the goal of safeguarding our national security. Indeed, that is one reason I wrote to the President urging the Administration to seek Congressional authorization prior to committing any military force in Syria so that we, as a nation, could have this critical debate.
I will continue reviewing information on this issue and am monitoring the situation within Syria closely, as it continues to evolve. Moreover, I will continue to listen to my constituents as you make your voices heard on this difficult issue. Rest assured, I will certainly keep your views in mind on this critically important topic.
Member of Congress
We take a brief departure from deeper subjects to devote a post to food.
Many years ago, when I was an undergrad at the University of Southern California, I had the pleasure of taking classes with Prof. Robert S. Ellwood. Ellwood is an expert on the religious and philosophical movements that sprang up in Southern California during the 60′s; in his classes we visited various groups and cults around Los Angeles. Some of these were rather strange, but one of the more ordinary outings involved visiting a yoga ashram in Santa Monica. After the tour, students (being always hungry) availed themselves of a natural foods deli run by the ashram. I had a “vegetarian chicken sandwich”, which replaced chicken with a textured soybean product. I was amazed at how good it tasted — *exactly* like chicken. At the time it seemed likely that within a few years everyone would be eating textured soy instead of meat. While so far that hasn’t exactly happened, a few products have become so popular now that you can find them at your local supermarket.
In case you’ve tried meatless bacon or veggie-burgers, you’re in for a surprise, because the products mentioned below are in a completely different class.
I have gone for years at a stretch basically eating these products every day instead of meat. I found that they kept me healthy and energetic, supplied plenty of protein, and never lost their taste appeal.
Here are some of my favorites.
For a long time the best products available were deli slices by Yves veggie cuisine. They’re still an excellent choice, and come in a variety of flavors; the ‘Meatless Turkey’ and ‘Meatless Smoked Chicken’ are, in my opinion, the best. If you place these in a sandwich with the usual pickles, lettuce, and mustard, you’d be unable to tell that these aren’t meat. The only drawback is that lately prices have gone up.
Not to worry. Tofurkey Deli Slices by Turtle Island Foods taste even better and cost less than Yves deli slices. The best flavors are “Hickory Smoked” and “Oven Roasted” (though fewer stores carry the latter). For a while I could only get these at Trader Joes, but now I see Safeway is carrying them.
The same company makes several varieties of imitation meat sausages. These are a better bargain, since they cost the same as the deli slices, but supply two meals whereas a package of deli slices is about right for a single dinner entree (for an adult male). Another benefit is that you can cook or heat the sausage products.
Again, the sausages come in a variety of flavors, though the Italian Sausage is all I’ve been able to find locally.
Wherever I go in California these days I meet young people who either can’t afford to attend college, so they don’t, or else are going to college and taking out huge student loans. (I don’t know which group I feel more sorry for, though I think the first group are smarter.)
The thing is, none of this is necessary. The problem, of course, is the unrealistic and outrageously high tuitions at colleges and universities today. And while I’m scarcely a knee-jerk ‘free market solves all’ libertarian, in this case I think the principle applies. The reason tuitions are so high is because we have a closed system, a monopoly of players in collusion who control higher education. The racket works like this:
- Universities convince people that they need a diploma to get a job.
- Employers collude with universities, so that they do in fact require diplomas.
- Further add the requirement that the diploma must be granted by an accredited university.
- Control which colleges and universities get accredited and which don’t, thereby limiting competition. In particular, make the accreditation process so expensive that small independent colleges are excluded.
The net result is that the service (education) becomes virtually mandatory, but only members of the monopoly can supply the service. Consequently the members of the monopoly can charge (or extort) unrealistically high tuitions and get away with it.
So there are two related problems that go into making higher education a monopoly: accreditation, and the use of diplomas. My proposal is that we should seriously consider eliminating both. By eliminating accreditation we would open the marketplace to free competition, the result being lower prices. By eliminating diplomas, at least at the undergraduate level, we would teach people because they want to learn, not because they want a piece of paper.
What is the rational basis for accreditation? One can see why, perhaps, we should require physicians to be licensed — we don’t want quacks endangering the lives of unsuspecting patients. But do students need to be protected from ‘incompetent’ colleges? Can’t we let students themselves decide which colleges are supplying adequate service?
Consider the power of consumer choice in other areas. Does a hamburger chain need to be accredited, or can it just sell hamburgers, competing with other chains, succeeding if it satisfies customers and failing if it doesn’t? Do you check to see where your car mechanic is trained before doing business? Or do you choose based on demonstrated skill and reasonable price? If you can make your own choice of mechanics, restaurants, and movies, why are you deemed incapable of discriminating between excellent and lousy colleges? Why do you need an accreditation organization to do this for you?
Let’s look at another reason people claim to need accreditation: to control admission to professional and graduate schools. So accredited doctoral programs require bachelor’s or master’s degrees from accredited universities so they can turn out PhD’s qualified to teach at accredited universities. It is egregiously self-serving.
I hate to disappoint my fellow academicians, but I have a little confession to make. I went through a fully accredited PhD program. But the truth is that I learned almost nothing in my classes. There were a few good professors, but more often than not they were pompous bores. What I did learn I mainly learned by checking statistics books out of the library and reading in my own time. I taught myself Fortran, developed skill as a programmer, and wrote statistics and simulation programs. That was how I got my education. And I could have done just as well at an unaccredited university — or for that matter, if supplied only with a library pass and computer account.
It surprises me that people aren’t challenging employer diploma discrimination in court. It is a flagrant injustice, if not a clear-cut abuse of civil rights. Take two identical twins. Send one to an accredited university for four years, give the other a computer and internet access. Let them both read the same books and articles. Let one attend in-person lectures, let the other buy lectures from The Teaching Company. After four years you will likely find two equally well educated people. Then have them both send job applications to the same company. The non-degreed twin won’t even be granted an interview; his or her resume won’t be read or sent out of the HR department. Does anybody seriously believe that is legal?
It amazes me that so much interest and energy gather around an issue like gay marriage equity, while everybody sits silently and tolerates diploma discrimination, which is arguably much more serious, because it amounts to rich vs. poor discrimination, unmitigated elitism, and exploitation.
Does game theory explain why Americans don’t vote for third-party candidates?
Previous posts here have considered the tactics by which the Republican and Democratic parties collude to maintain a two-party hegemony in America politics. Lately it’s occurred to me that this problem can be understood as a special case of what game theorists call the prisoner’s dilemma (Rapoport, 1965). Prisoner’s dilemma (PD), as we shall see, is a classic example of how two decision-making agents, both seemingly seeking to maximize self-interest, systematically make harmful or suboptimal choices. In the present case, the issue is that even though American voters would be better off voting for third-party candidates, there are structural reasons why they do not do so. Looking at this problem in terms of PD can help identify the structural issues at work and suggest possible routes out of our present political impasse.
A few other people (e.g., John Sallet, and EvilRedScandi) have looked at PD as a way to understand current political dynamics, but their concerns are somewhat different than the present one, which is how Republican and Democrat voters today are jointly in a prisoners’ dilemma.
First we’ll describe the basic PD paradigm. Then we’ll show how this applies to reluctance to vote for third-party candidates. Last and perhaps most importantly we’ll consider practical steps for reform that the model suggests.
PD is a paradigm in game theory that demonstrates how two decision-makers paradoxically fail to maximize either self- and joint-interests. Specifically, though their best strategy would be cooperation, they systematically choose non-cooperation. The basic model can be understood as follows:
Early one Saturday you and a college friend go hunting for magic mushrooms (for scientific research) in Farmer Brown’s cow pasture. Farmer Brown sees you and calls police Chief Wiggum, who arrives promptly, arrests you and your friend, and hauls you both to the police station.
There Wiggum places you in a room by yourself and proposes a deal. (He also tells you he will propose an identical deal to your friend.) He asks you to ‘confess’ that you and your friend were gathering the mushrooms with the intent of selling them. If you confess, and your friend doesn’t confess, he will go to jail for 10 years and you will go free. If you confess and your friend also confesses, you’ll both be given 5-year sentences. If you don’t confess, but your friend does, he will go free and you will get a 10-year sentence. If neither of you confess, Wiggum explains that he can still charge you and your friend with trespassing and put you both in jail for 30 days.
We can represent the dilemma with reference to a payoff matrix that considers each possible combination of choices and their consequences. You and your friend must each choose between cooperation with each other (not confessing), or defecting (confessing). The days and years indicate the amount of jail time associated with each case.
Table 1. Classic Prisoner’s Dilemma
|Friend cooperates||Friend defects|
|You cooperate|| you: 30 days
friend: 30 days
| you: 10 yrs.
friend: goes free
|You defect|| you: go free
friend: 10 yrs.
| you: 5 yrs.
friend: 5 yrs.
Given this payoff structure, the expected result is that both you and your friend will cave in and confess, and then both will receive 5 year sentences. Yet had you both cooperated by not confessing, you each would have gotten the lesser 30 day sentence. The pernicious aspect of the PD is that this happens almost inevitably, and the interrogator structures the payoffs specifically for this purpose.
Why does this happen? It has to do with what game theorists call the principle of dominance. Relative to Table 1 that means that whatever your friend’s choice is – that is, whether you’re looking at column 2 or column 3 of the table – your self-interest is maximized by defecting; thus, the strategy of defection is said to dominate that of cooperation. And similarly for your friend. Therefore, paradoxically, if maximizing self-interest is the only consideration, both of you will defect, and neither will maximize self-interest.
A detail is that although we’ve explained the dilemma in terms of various punishments, the crafty allocation of positive incentives, alone or in combination with negative incentives, can have the same effect. So, for example, Chief Wiggum can sweeten the deal with a bribe. He could offer to give you or your friend say $100 if the one defects and the other doesn’t.
An important extension of the model is iterative PD, where two agents are presented with the dilemma multiple times. Many researchers have studied iterative PD experimentally, e.g., seating two volunteers at computer terminals and repeatedly asking them to cooperate or defect, awarding payoffs (e.g., M&Ms, poker chips, money) each round. A variety of player strategies are seen. Sometimes players converge on cooperation, sometimes not. One not uncommon outcome is a tit-for-tat dynamic, in which players cooperate for a while, but if one defects, the other player retaliates by defecting in the next round, and this may go back and forth many times. In any case, the iterative PD corresponds to our national elections, which occur at regular two or four-year intervals.
Let’s now see how this applies to third-party voting. Our initial premise is that, while one might suppose that the Republican and Democratic parties are competitors, they’re really a duopoly. Both serve the same ruling powers. They thus represent a single agent, which we might call Wall Street, the System, the Establishment, etc. Whatever we call it, it corresponds to the role of the interrogator in our PD.
The role of you and your friend correspond to a given Republican and a given Democrat voter, or perhaps groups or Republican and Democrat voters.
The essence of the third-party voting PD is that it is in the best interests of both Republican and Democrat voters, individually and jointly, to replace or radically reform the present two-party duopoly. Unless or until the two big parties nominate better candidates, the logical solution is for large numbers of citizens to vote for third-party candidates. The paradox is that voters are not doing this, but are choosing to keep the aversive two-party system in power.
This happens, we propose, because of how the ruling powers structure perceived payoffs, both by their selection of candidates and by party platforms.
Here PD makes an unexpected prediction. Common sense might suggest that to win office, a party should nominate candidates who (1) appeal to its own voters, but also (2) are either somewhat attractive, but in any case not terribly offensive to voters in the opposite party. That way some voters in the opposite camp might switch votes, or perhaps may feel it’s not important to vote at all. In either case, the party’s chances of winning are improved.
However if we grant that the Republican and Democrat parties are controlled by Wall Street and colluding with each other, PD implies that they will follow an opposite strategy, namely to nominate candidates who are frightening or even detested by voters of the opposite party. In such a fear- or anger-driven campaign, fewer voters will break ranks, believing that the opposite party must be prevented from winning at all costs. All votes will be cast for the two big parties – precisely as Wall Street wants.
To further encourage voters not to break ranks, each party also offers positive incentives in the form of platforms and campaign promises: for example universal health care or gay marriage by the Democratic party, or tougher immigration laws and Second Amendment protection but the Republican party. But, again, PD would predict that parties would be especially keen to offer incentives that are hated by voters of the opposite party.
Table 2 presents the PD that Republican and Democrat voters faced in the 2008 presidential election. (Cooperation here means voting for a third-party candidate, and defection means voting for the nominee of ones own party.)
Table 2. 2008 Presidential Election as Prisoners’ Dilemma
|Dem. voter cooperates||Dem. voter defects|
|Rep. voter cooperates|| Election a toss-up,
Two-party hegemony rejected
| Obama/Biden win,
|Rep. voter defects|| McCain/Palin win,
| Election a toss-up,
Two-party hegemony affirmed
If we suppose that both main parties represent Wall Street and are ultimately inimical to the interests of the public, the best strategy for Republican and Democrat voters is to vote for some third-party candidate. That won’t change the power structure immediately, but over the course of two or three elections sufficient momentum may build to make a third-party candidate competitive. If nothing else, this may force the two big parties to become more responsive to citizens.
However what is happening instead is that voters are afraid to do this. So, to consider the 2012 presidential election, despite the disillusionment of many Democrats with Obama, and the unattractiveness of Mitt Romney to many Republicans, the combined votes received by all third-party candidates amounted to less than 2% of the total.
Viewing third-party voting as a PD suggests specific strategies for extricating American voters from their current predicament. Several, but not all, of these strategies relate to improving the perception of payoffs so that cooperation, i.e., voting for third-party candidates, is more appealing. Specific strategies include the following:
Accurately perceive costs of non-cooperation. The ultimate problem is that Democrat and Republican voters are not accurately considering the costs of maintaining the two-party hegemony and the benefits of electing third-party candidates. If the true costs and benefits were salient in our minds, we would more eagerly vote against the abusive and arrogant Republican-Democratic party establishment.
Our social problems today are many and serious: the economy is moribund, rates of unemployment and foreclosures intolerable, college tuitions insanely high, the environment is being destroyed, civil liberties disappearing; the country is engaged in perpetual war, and a spirit of divisiveness and antagonism dominate.
Less often considered, but perhaps even more important are the ‘opportunity costs’, i.e., besides these negative things, what positive things are we missing out on because of our dysfunctional and aversive government? Objectively considered, America has sufficient natural and human resources to construct a veritable utopia; we could eliminate poverty, grant free higher education and health-care for all; we have enough land to let everyone live in their own houses on their own property in environmentally friendly and attractive communities. Indeed, the blessings of nature generally, and in our country particularly, are so great that it seems we must make a concerted effort to avoid constructing such a prosperous and congenial society. We need a clearer vision of how good life could be were we only to stop punishing ourselves with the present inimical political system.
How can we gain this vision? Surely we still have individuals with the imagination and skills to lead. We must develop and empower these natural leaders and intellectuals. One obvious means of doing this is to reform our higher education system, which, by now neglecting liberal studies and humanities in favor of teaching technical and money-making skills, is discouraging the emergence of a more utopian vision of society.
We can also promote voter cooperation by applying more skepticism and critical thinking to the promises of Republican and Democrat candidates. For example, a Democrat candidate may well promise universal health care, which sounds very attractive at face value, but ought to raise many obvious questions about its feasibility or unintended side-effects. Would government-run health-care produce an unwieldy and inefficient bureaucracy? Would the government give too much power to pharmaceutical companies? Are there cheaper and better alternatives, such as a greater emphasis on preventive medicine and healthy living? Subjected to greater scrutiny, the promises of the two parties can be seen as empty, or in any case far less attractive than the kind of society we could obtain by having a government based on citizens’, not corporations’ interests.
Long-term perspective. Clearly another way to acquire more a accurate perception of the payoff structure, so as to better see the benefits of cooperation by voting for third-party candidates, is to adopt a long-term perspective. A bias favoring immediate wishes over long-term welfare is, of course, a fundamental problem of human nature. But the problem is especially great in politics, where demagogues and news media specialize in appealing to voters’ short-term interests. In any given election, the short term benefits promised by Republican and Democrat candidates may seem attractive to their respective constituencies, but over the course of 10 or 20 years alternations of policy and failure to pursue any consistent course is disastrous.
Collectivize utilities. By collectivizing utilities I mean for individual citizens to recognize their own best interests and those of their fellow Americans are intimately connected. We are a highly interdependent society. Ultimately, social injustice or unfair distribution of wealth harms everyone. If one segment of the population is oppressed or excluded, or their views ignored, then at the very least their contribution to society will be lessened, and this hurts everyone. Moreover, eventually an oppressed or underserved group will gather sufficient energy to redress the wrong by political action. Whatever is at the basis of the ideological split between Republicans and Democrats, the current political dynamics operate as a negative feedback system: as one group gains successive victories, opposing pressure builds until a reversal occurs. Thus victories are often short-lived, policies flip-flop, and no sustained course is pursued.
Consider higher-order utilities. The utility calculus of voters is such that typically only material values – jobs, benefits, taxes, etc. – are considered. Americans have bought lock, stock and barrel the political lie that “it’s the economy, stupid”, i.e., that all success and value of our society is measured by the GNP. This does not reflect the true value structure of human beings. We are not merely material creatures, but moral and spiritual beings as well. It is an undeniable fact that people feel good and experience more happiness and satisfaction when they practice generosity, altruism, benevolence, charity, and justice. Add to this that no amount of material benefits can outweigh the disadvantages of citizens being constantly at each others’ throats. In an authentic utility calculus, higher-order utilities have to be considered; and if they are, the payoff much more clearly favors cooperation among voters and rejection of the two-party hegemony.
Third-party platforms and rhetoric. Third parties must confront Americans with the price being paid for two-party totalitarianism and emphasize that a better future is obtainable.
Voter pacts. Beyond changing perceptions of payoffs, there are active steps that people in a prisoners’ dilemma can do to win the game. Perhaps the most obvious is for the two players to anticipate the dilemma and form a pact beforehand. For example, with regards to Table 1, you and your friend could agree beforehand, “If we’re caught, we both promise to assert our innocence.” This solution is enhanced by establishing or improving trust, affection, and bonds of unity between the two players.
In theory, individual Republican and Democrat voters could pair up with a member of the opposite party and agree to vote for third-party candidates. A website might be set up for this purpose. While this is sensible and ethical, I believe that at least certain forms of voting pacts have been ruled illegal, and one website dedicated to this was forced to close. Nevertheless this principle could doubtless be applied in ways that are unambiguously legal, or at least such that contrary prohibitions would be unenforceable.
Bargains could also be made at the level of institutional endorsements. For example, two newspapers, one liberal and one conservative, could make a pact to endorse third-party candidates.
Opting out. Finally, citizens might opt out of the dilemma in various ways. I would personally not advocate failure to vote as a means for this, although some suggest it. Protests, demonstrations, or even strikes might be used to pressure the Republican and Democratic parties to reform their platforms and supply better candidates. Another possibility is to hold alternative elections run by the citizens themselves with candidates of their own choosing. Such elections would have no legal status, but they would have symbolic value, would permit realistic debates about policy, and encourage trust and camaraderie amongst citizens.
These are only representative suggestions. How feasible or effective any of them would be remains to be seen. The main point here has been to suggest that PD is an appropriate paradigm for looking at the current two-party stranglehold on American society and understanding how to encourage third-party voting. I would like to encourage others, including social scientists, to consider this topic more, as I believe the model is apt and probably contains more theoretical and practical implications than have been considered here.
Writing this article helped me to see the more fundamental problem: American society generally is an n-way prisoners’ dilemma. When people view society as merely a ‘dog-eat-dog’ competition, they ‘rationally’ choose to maximize self(ish)-interest. But selfishness only pays off when other people act unselfishly. When everybody acts selfishly, everyone loses; thinking you’ll win by acting selfishly is an illusion.
Each person is better off when everybody cooperates. This is more than an ethical maxim, it’s demonstrated by game theory.
Rapoport, Anatol. Prisoner’s Dilemma: A Study in Conflict and Cooperation. University of Michigan, 1965.
Uebersax, John. S. ‘The Commission on Presidential Debates: A National Scandal‘.
Uebersax, John. S. ‘Game Theory and the American Two-Party Racket’.
Uebersax, John. S. ‘The Lions and the Tigers (A Political Parties Fable)’.
Uebersax, John. S. ‘Why Vote Third-Party?’.