On the surface it would not appear that the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 would have any connection with a U.S. Senate race in Massachusetts half a century later, but there is one (having little actually to do with the Kennedys at that). What the world learned about diplomacy and nuclear power then America today could glean from what’s happening in the Bay State between incumbent Scott Brown and challenger Elizabeth Warren and their relations to negative ads. What essentially boils down to “DB Double-A” — or Don’t Be An Asshole — is a nugget of practical wisdom as old as Methuselah and as relevant as ever. Following its lead, we can cooperate and coexist. Failing to do so we guarantee a mutually assured destruction.
Proposed originally by first-term Republican Scott Brown — who came into office during an emergency election following the death of Ted Kennedy — both candidates vying for the office of U.S. Senator have agreed upon a pact whose purpose is to eschew third party negative ads. Here’s how it works: if a negative ad slanders the former consumer protections advocate as being cozy with the Occupy movement, Scott Brown’s campaign will have to donate half of what that ad cost to a charity. Ditto for Warren if the League of Conservation Voters goes after Brown. So far it has been successful — but we’re still half a year away from the election in November…
Brown and Warren have done well to add a monetary penalty to hold up their ends of the bargain, without which such an entente would have little teeth. Scott Brown knows that Elizabeth Warren’s campaign could have a field day running negative ads about him (such as how while publicly lambasting Obamacare he is privately benefiting from it by providing insurance for his adult daughter), just as Warren’s people know full well that the likes of Karl Rove and the Bros Koch could go uglier on her than a hound dog a poison possum’s hole. As such, they have two options: take the high road and play fair, or get killed by killing your opponent — that’s the mutually assured destruction part, or MAD as it used to be called. It’s MAD that has guided nuclear disarmament policies: when you have two nuclear warhead powers, each capable of blowing up the other far beyond the gates of heaven, then the incentive for each is to just sit on their hands awhile; otherwise it’s a suicide pact, a zero sum game (or gain). Or reaching critical Mass, so to speak.
The world wondered about this back in 1962, during the fever pitch of the Cold War. The U.S. could have dropped a bomb on the U.S.S.R., but then so too could have the U.S.S.R. dropped a bomb on the U.S. Back and forth til like all war, it’s not about who’s right; it’s about who’s left. It was a real life example of the famous thought experiment called the Prisoner’s Dilemma. Remember this? It’s a little complicated but not too complex. Rather than rely on the wonky formula that is this —
— instead I will try to encapsulate the situation in a way we can call relate to at home…
Let’s say Barb and Doug are activists about to set off on a black ops mission, but before they can wrap their “Recall Walker!” banner around the Capitol rotunda they are picked up by the police. Both are taken to the station and interrogated — cigarette smoke, dangling light bulbs, rolled-up sleeves and all — but are done so separately; Barb and Doug have no contact or way to communicate to one another. The police tell Barb, “We’ve got enough on you to put your ugly mug away for three months.” But deep down the cops would rather keep at least one of them — both are well-known rabble-rousers, though one is local and one is national — behind bars for longer than a year. So instead the cops play a trick and say, “Barb, here’s the deal: if you rat out your dumb pal, Doug, and that dingbat says nothing, we’ll let you go for free, no questions asked, but Dougy-boy’s going away for a cool ten years. However, if you Barbara say nothing, and Doug spills the beans on you, we’ll let him go and it’s you who’ll be doing the ten in San Quentin. Hold up! Before you say anything, know this: if each of you’s rats the other out like the no-good scoundrels y’are, we’ll put the both of yous away for five years. Capice?” Now, remember: if Barb and Doug both keep their mouths shut, they’ll only be serving three months (thanks to some Department of Administration citation passed in the dead of night by Secretary Mike Huebsch). Since Barb and Doug are separated, they cannot talk to each other and thereby agree that the safest policy for them both is to serve the skimpy three months. And that’s the whole dilemma: what does each one do? It could be three months, five years, or ten years. Or get out of jail. What do you do? And what do you do if this scenario repeats itself (known as “iterated” in game theory)? In short, how do you cooperate without getting screwed? Or does self-interest rule and you throw the other bastard under the bus?
This very question was tested out in a tournament of computer programs back in 1962, at the campus of Northwestern University, in Evanston, IL (just north of Chicago, which is fascinating since the original work on the atomic bomb — at least the whole chain reaction thing — itself was conducted at University of Chicago). Hundreds of entries were submitted, ranging from always be nice and pacifistic to kill, kill, kill. The entry that won was also the simplest, shortest submission. It goes like this: on your first move, be nice. On your second move do whatever your opponent just did. Repeat whatever your opponent just did. Also known as “tit for tat,” the beauty and elegance of this logic is that you do claim the moral high ground right from the get-go, but you also demonstrate that you’re not a sucker. Furthermore, it’s the best fitted adaptation for survival — which isn’t that what this is all about anyway?
For instance, if Barb is mean to Doug, and Doug is nice to Barb, but Barb is still mean to Doug, then Doug would be a fucking schmuck if he were still nice to her, right? So Doug is mean back to Barb. And since Barb just can’t get enough of being mean to Doug, Doug has no choice but to be mean back. It goes on. Barb’s a bitch and Doug’s playing sensible defense.
But if Barb is nice on her first move, Doug can only be nice also, or mean. If he is nice, then Barb will be nice a second time, and why would Doug at that point be mean to her? It wouldn’t be in his best interest, even if he were a prick. So the two would peacefully coexist. If Doug were mean, then Barb would be mean back. At this point Doug would have to choose which of Barb’s two sides he would prefer: her niceness or meanness, since he’s had a taste of both. Probably he would choose to be nice to Barb, since he knows she’s capable of being nice and mean. Doug’s no dummy, and Barb’s a great gal — she just needs to be respected, which is understandable after all.
To put this Biblically, this is pretty Old Testament stuff, not New; it’s an eye-for-an-eye, not turn-the-other-cheek. Yes, but it’s not ten or twenty or 10,000 eyes for one.
Needless to say, the Prisoner’s Dilemma does not take into consideration the heinous consequences of Citizens United, third party ads, and so-called superpac money. Without amending the Constitution, I don’t know what remedy there is for that. However, the Prisoner’s Dilemma does provide a neat and tidy algorithm for campaigning politicians. DB-Double A indeed!