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Saturday, June 11, 2005

More Like Them

Consider a game that nearly everyone has played at one time or another. There's an extra piece of candy and both you and your sister want it. Dad says, "I'm thinking of a number between one and ten, each of you guess what it is, and who ever is closer gets the piece of candy." Your sister goes first and picks two. What do you do?

Assuming that you have no way of knowing what number Dad is thinking of, clearly the best choice is three. By choosing three you win if Dad was thinking of three to ten and only lose if Dad was thinking of one or two.

But what if Dad plays this game fairly often, Dad's favorite number is nine, and that's what he usually picks? You might as well still pick three since you'll still win even if Dad picks nine.

Now let's say Dad's a bit mischievous and modifies the game. Whoever guesses the closer number still gets the candy, but there's a caveat. You have to wait however many days your number is different from the one Dad is thinking of. In other words, if you pick three and Dad was thinking of nine, you'll still get the candy but Dad won't give it to you for six days (nine minus three).

This makes the decision subjective. If the most important thing in the world is to ensure your annoying sister doesn't get the piece of candy, three is still the best choice. On the other hand, if you actually like your sister and don't mind her getting the candy, and you need instant gratification so you want the candy now or never, and Dad does usually pick nine, then your best guess is nine. Four through eight are also reasonable choices and tradeoff how quickly you get the candy if you win, with winning it in the first place.

Let's switch gears now. Let the choices of one to ten represent the spectrum of pure communism through pure capitalism. In other words, one represents pure communism and ten represents pure capitalism. Picking the optimal number will make your society the strongest possible.

It's 1917 and the communist revolution just occurred in Russia. In other words, the Russians just picked two. You have no knowledge of the future. If you choose wrong and lose, the Russians will become much stronger economically and militarily, and your society will probably end up collapsing.

If the optimal number is two, then you're sunk no matter what you do. The Russians have hit the number dead on, and will quickly become the dominant power. So we just have to hope it's not two.

Dad doesn't exist in this version of the game, but your analysis and intuition tells you the optimal point in the spectrum between communism and capitalism is nine. However, you could be wrong and you know it.

So, what do you pick? If you pick three (very socialist but not as socialist as Russia), your society will have the best shot of winning, but it may take a really long time for that victory to occur. If you pick nine (mostly capitalism, very little socialism), you think you will win and quickly, but you might lose.

During the cold war, the U.S. drifted left through FDR's New Deal, war on poverty, and other social safety nets that didn't exist prior to Russia's communist revolution. That drift was perhaps a "nine" to a "seven." So the U.S. chose seven.

Now, I'm not claiming that I somehow "know" that the self organizing complex system that was the society of the United States during the cold war explicitly chose to become somewhat more like the enemy they were fighting in order to hedge their bets. Nonetheless, it's interesting that we did become a little more like the Soviets than we had been before their revolution. I also think that if you explained the game to people of that era as I explained it above, they might also have picked something less than nine. Quite a coincidence.

Let's switch gears one last time. This time the spectrum is social conservatism to social liberalism. A choice of one indicates extreme conservatism as is found in extreme Islam or any other extremely conservative people. A choice of ten indicates the opposite; no laws against "victimless" crimes, no morality based laws of any kind, everyone can does as they please as long as they don't directly damage anyone else. There are lots of caveats with this spectrum, but you get the idea.

It's September 12, 2001. Islamic terrorists have chosen one. We're at about seven and the average opinion of where we should be on September 10, 2001 was about seven as well. What do we choose now?

Well, once again, the optimal number as far as the strength of our society against this enemy who engages in asymmetric warfare is unknown. If we get it wrong we might very well lose. It could even possibly be unwinnable no matter what we do (in this case the optimal number is one).

But if we become more like the enemy, we increase the odds of survival but our society becomes a worse place in the meantime. If we don't become more like the enemy, we may not survive.

I think this may be a factor, albeit one of many, that's causing the acceleration of the re-adoption of religiosity in America. I'll admit that it is an unprovable conjecture, but nevertheless, it is an interesting coincidence.

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