Russia and the prisoner’s dilemma

For the past few years we’ve been playing a prisoner’s dilemma with Russia. In fact, I’d argue that this goes back farther than just a few years, it might even go back to our two wars in the Iraq and Afghanistan. The US essentially was able to convince through a mixture of sympathy, arm twisting, and out right lies as we know now.

Since then at every turn Russia has been a balancing force or antagonizing force depending on your perspective, to US goals in different parts of the world; specifically in places like Liberia, Syria, and Turkey. In none of these cases was Russia in a position to really push back against the US and definitely could not have pushed for Sanctions against the US.

Now, with the Ukraine crisis it’s not longer through proxies. This is a head to head game against some of the most corrupt politicians on earth. These politicians make our “corrupt” politicians look like kittens. They are not afraid to lock up someone for political dissent, like Pussy Riot or many others. Furthermore, there are a lot of accusations of out right poisoning or murder as well. In the US, there might be calls for sending someone to prison, but truthfully, I don’t think that anyone would be happy if it was incredibly easy to send a duly elected official in the US to prison. We might like it to be easier or whatever, but it’s not and it’s even better that it’s hard for dissenters to be sent to prison.

Obama likely has gained some experience with the brinkmanship that’s happened in the US in the past few months, but that’s really nothing compared to Putin’s experience as a KGB agent and running Russia for the past 15 years. For the Crimea (where Russia has “invaded or not”) this has some serious implications. At this point the US can do a few things, commit militarily, push for sanctions – likely including removing Russia from UN and other international bodies, and little else. To preempt any discussion on sanctions Russia has already said that happens they will simply shift away from the Dollar and stop repaying any US banks.

This is what we have to look forward to with this Crimea Crisis. Russia and the US are both in a no-blink position over this. The US believes that Russia is in the wrong with their actions in Crimea and Ukraine, while Russia believes it is doing nothing wrong.

We’re entering a pretty terrifying time with these stand offs. At this point we don’t know how the people are playing the Prisoner’s Dilemma. Are they all playing the game as if we’re going to have another turn? In all the other cases I’d say that yes, we’ve played as if there will be more turns. However, people are arguing we’re on the brink of another cold-war. I can’t make a claim either way for that – I look back at movies from the 80’s and at times have difficulty remembering the context that movie was filmed in. However, thinking about the tension in this situation and the fear that the other guy is only planning on one interaction that it’s this and never another move, that’s pretty terrifying – especially since I want to keep playing.

Government Shut Down

The government shut down is bad mmmkay? This is one of the examples as to why I’m glad my wife didn’t end up with a job at either a government research lab, government agency, university or any other place that relies on public funds to keep it’s doors open. That’s a lot of places. Between the sequestration and this shutdown, the US has turned into a horrible place for the sciences. However, it’s alright for us to keep the NSA up and running, but not the people that watch the watchmen. Basically, our government has different priories than most Americans, which of course is no surprise – well at least different from myself. Losing funding for science is a huge blow, especially the fact that they couldn’t continue to speak or publish any papers. It’s disconcerting because our scientific research is what allows the US to stay ahead of the rest of the world in our economic output. The results of scientific funding from the ’60s essentially gave rise to everything we’re doing on the internet. The funding from ARPA that lead to ARPAnet and then the internet, inadvertently lead to the great work I mentioned in my review of Dealers of Lightning. Many of the members of the team at Xerox were funded by ARPA during their PhD’s, their research at various universities, and in some cases even startups. This one government expenditure had massive positive impact in the one area of our economy that’s going gang busters.

So what’s going on with this shutdown? As this article points out the House did pass a budget, which is where all budget must start, however, the Senate didn’t pass it and countered with their own budget, which happens fairly often. This leads to negotiation between the two chambers in Congress. The problem that we’re experiencing in this case is that the “don’t match” portion happens to be Obamacare. The House did not fund Obamacare at all, while the Senate naturally did (being held by the Democrats). This required that the House and Senate come together to reconcile their differences, which aren’t possible to reconcile with everyone. Which is the Speaker’s problem right now. Almost a week ago, there were rumored to be enough votes in the House to pass the Senate version of the budget – as Republicans were defecting to support the Democrats. The House refused to allow a vote to be called. Bills that don’t have a chance to pass get votes all the time (many people have pointed out Obamacare repeal is a key example of that). So, I think that the article I linked above is a bit disingenuous either intentionally or is just intellectually dishonest. The author clearly knows what people mean by saying “law of the land.” It means that as we have obligation within the law we need to pay them. The House, Senate, President, and Supreme Court weighed in and it’s a legal bill. The House is unable to repeal it through legislative methods so created a plan to shutdown the government to stop the bill from taking effect – to defund the bill and “repeal” it that way. That’s what they are doing and why.

The reasons for why the Republicans believe this would work is beautifully laid out in an argument using Game Theory on the Harvard Business Review: every other time brinkmanship was used, it worked. Go with the strategy until it doesn’t work any more. The White House figured this out too and now cannot allow it to continue. Otherwise, the above author would be correct, the best way to kill a bill you don’t like that passed through everything is to simply defund it later or shutdown the government until the other people meet your demands. Toss some spin on their to make it seem like the other side is unreasonable and boom, you’ve gotten your way again.

The problem with brinkmanship is that it’s a zero sum game and if the government defaults, it’s going to be terrible for everyone. The bulk of US voters blame the republicans, this could cause massive damage to even safe areas for the republicans. Are there better ways to deal with Obamacare? Yes, if it’s as awful as the Republicans think it is, use that to get everyone out of office that voted for it. Run on that plank and push it to the hilt. If it kills jobs, causes people to go bankrupt use all that to get the Democrats out of office. Then once a majority is secured repeal the law. That’s how government should work. Sure you can work to undermine the law while you’re at it, but if you want to get rid of it, do it with votes so it’s clear the people have spoken. This shut down is bad for everyone. Let’s end it, figure out how to address long term debt, improve the job market, pay for more science, and address the structural problems we have as a nation. If Obamacare is a bad thing, we’ll figure it out really quick and then deal with that fall out. We need leaders now, not children.