Monday, August 8, 2016

Political science and craziness Part I: The wages of wackiness

Is Donald Trump crazy?  Michael Bloomberg's speech at the DNC ended with a plea to elect someone "sane and competent," meaning Clinton.  It might be worth going back to my earlier post on "valence," but Bloomberg isn't the only one questioning Trump's sanity.  I have no clue how to diagnose people, but what I  do know is game theory, and game theory actually has a lot to say on being, or at least appearing crazy.

And so begins yet another of my political science serials, Dickens-style.  Of course, Dickens got paid. Then again, can I admit I hated Dickens?  Then again, Asimov did serials too.  Anyway, your new homework assignment is a Nobel prize winner.  Thomas Schelling, The Strategy of Conflict.  It easily makes my all-time top five.  No skipping and no skimming on this one, kids.  If you want to understand conflict, threats, and how to win without having to fight, this is the book you need to read.

So here's a little problem.  Suppose some ordinary looking person walks up to you with what looks like a homemade bomb and says, "hey, that looks like a nice watch.  Give it to me, or I'll blow up this bomb, and kill us both."

This creates a two-stage game.  In Stage I, you either give the person your watch, or don't.  (I know, nobody wears watches anymore, but it's a story, so shut up and go with it).  In Stage II, the person either detonates the bomb, or doesn't.  Pop quiz, hot shot, what do you do?  (Why did I quote that?  That movie sucked).

Anyway, if you can assume that the person with the homemade bomb-looking-thing is rational, you don't hand over your watch because it would be irrational to detonate the bomb over whatever cheap piece of garbage you probably have.  Hell, it would be irrational if you had a fucking Rolex.  So, you tell that person to sod off, then go about your day.

On the other hand, what if the person with the homemade-bomb-looking thing doesn't look like an ordinary person?  Instead, he looks like he's completely batshit-fucking-crazy.  Like, Dennis Hopper-crazy.  (See what I did there?)  You might not trust that he's rational.  So, you might worry that he would detonate the bomb over the watch, you hand it over, and hope he goes away.

The sane guy gets nothing, the batshit crazy guy gets a free watch!  The wages of wackiness.

Sort of.  The problem is that an actual batshit crazy guy might eventually blow himself up.  It isn't actually being crazy that gets you free stuff.  It is appearing crazy that gets you free stuff because it convinces other people that you will do stuff that no sane person would do.  This is a key point from Schelling.  Appearing crazy can make a threat credible when it otherwise wouldn't be.

Donald Trump is running for president, demanding stuff from other countries, and threatening to do stuff that sounds kind of crazy.  To be continued...  Now, go read Schelling!

By the way, this is the 300th post in this still pretty new blog!  (Although, a lot of that doesn't really count, being music clips and such, but still...)  The convention coverage and such brought in some new readers, and if you like reading about Nobel prize-winning scholarship along with obscure sci-fi references, pretentious music and enough profanity to make you wonder who the fuck gave me a doctorate, then spread the word.


  1. I wonder about that last bit quite often.

  2. I wonder about that last bit quite often.

    1. I call bullshit. My frequent profanity has nothing to do with your incredulity at my credentials. Your incredulity comes from the patent ridiculousness of my scholarship, and you know it.

      As for who did credential me, that would be Nelson Polsby, Eric Schickler and Bruce Cain. If I recall correctly, that's a 2/3 overlap with your committee, yes?

    2. This comment has been removed by the author.

    3. And look at how shitty my career has been.
      You really want to be associated with that?

    4. Without a time machine, I don't have a choice. Besides, you remember the impetus behind this blog? I wrote up a piece back in the early days of Trump's rise about how... certain major political science models, plural, were failing to explain this cycle, and sent it to certain prominent blogs as a proposed guest post. They... weren't interested. So here I am, sniping from the sidelines... way, way, way off to the sidelines. And wrong or not, the people I have been criticizing sell far more books than I ever will.