Monday, 7 September 2009

Game Theory, Carrots, Sticks, And Disappearing Voters

Anti-Citizen One has unearthed an article in the New Scientist which should be required reading for every authoritarian, target-obsessed MP and civil service wonk in the country.

Want cooperation? Rewarding the helpful can be more effective than punishing wrongdoers, a new experiment in game theory suggests.

It's the old carrot vs stick conundrum, tackled by researchers at Harvard, the top university in the world, so by no means a bunch of cranks.

As Adam Curtis's comprehensive three-part 2007 film, The Trap: What Happened to Our Dream of Freedom, documented, our legislators have been adhering to game theory for many a year. This consists of statistical documentation of every aspect of our lives. Categorising, measuring, studying. And ultimately viewing us all as behaving like robots to certain stimuli. Targets will be set based on statistics, and behaviours managed like a computer model.

If we want to eradicate X, we need to do Y.

Those who advocate game theory (Tony Blair was a massive fan) concluded long ago that the stick works, but the carrot doesn't. Punishment is preferable to reward. The Harvard boffs are contesting that - and I hope someone, somewhere, is listening as the current methodology isn't fucking working.

Want to know why every aspect of public service is now target-led? Game theory. Police, NHS, education, global warming climate change, public health, third world poverty, the lot. Each has its arbitrary target, each has its goal, each has a set of sticks to coerce and bully the population into compliance.

Ever wondered why compliance is such a big statistic bandied around once a big stick is brought out? There's your answer above. Game theory.

Harvard are floating the idea that the stick isn't such a powerful weapon after all. In fact, better results are found in the carrot.

Rand points out that such disproportionate rewards often occur when we spend time, effort and money assisting people around us: helping a friend to move furniture, for instance, or recommending a colleague for promotion. Actions like these may have a smaller cost to us than the benefit they provide others. "These sorts of productive interactions are the building blocks of our society and should not be disregarded," he says.

Hey! Lib Dems at the back! You awake? Listen up, you may learn something.

Now, I would say this, but I reckon those clever Harvard guys have a point. It's evident to anyone who doesn't look merely at computer models to predict human behaviour - which doesn't, it would seem, include our elected representatives, who pore over percentages and focus group generalisations to form their legislative bullshit.

Let's take the parliamentary expenses scandal, for example. Does anyone, for even a minute, really believe that such amounts are anything more than a gnat bite on the taxes which we all pay? Not at all. So why the massive collective anger which resulted in MPs bleating like stuck pigs?

For the simple reason that the boot was, for a few glorious weeks, on the other foot. We could kick their fucking arrogant arses into the middle of next week for a change. When the idea that one of their number might hang themselves, rather than feeling sorry for them, we just hoped it was the one we particularly disliked.

The fuck 'em mentality has materialised exclusively because of the game theory punishment they have been inflicting on us for decades. Yet despite this, they carry on. Banning, fining, dreaming up ever imaginative ways by which to bully us into theoretical submission.

Let me tell you why this blog exists at all. I was never that interested in politics. Yes, I watched the news, always voted, I knew what was going on. It didn't make a lot of difference to me though. I'd vote for who made the best case and that was my lot.

Then, about 5 years ago, it struck me that every time I had turned my radio on in the morning, for the previous fortnight, the headline on the news was "The government are restricting this", "The government are banning that", "Labour will unveil plans to criminalise the other". It was incessant.

There was never a good news item. The moment an MP opened his mouth, it was to propose restricting or penalising my life and the lives of those around me. There was a goal, but it was generally not one which was enthusiastically shared by anyone I knew. Most of it was inconsequential bollocks, things the average Joe didn't really merit worrying about.

In short, bullying.

I got angry. I looked into it more, I sent e-mails. I harassed the fuck out of my MP who replied with party-led guff. I soon found out that standing up to bullies doesn't get you very far. The problem is that I'm a stubborn bastard and I fucking hate losing so I persevered and I can't see that ever changing.

Unfortunately, those around me changed. They gave up on the political process entirely. They were (and still are) angry about how government treats them, but their response was different to mine. "They're all the same, they all lie", "What's the point in voting, it only encourages them", and the one I will never forget, "You can't fight the government".

If politicians want to know why no-one listens to them anymore, why no-one can be arsed to vote, why laws are routinely ignored, why community and respect has broken down, why the population have become introspective and selfish, they have merely, as V once said, to look in the mirror.

They frown on bullying in schools, they know it makes kids withdrawn and non-receptive to education. When a kid loses interest in school because of bullying, he/she stops going to school.

They know this yet still bully all of us, treating us exactly as children, and expect us to play along with their idea of democracy.

Some fight back. But the majority give them their ball back and go and do something else instead. Respect dies, society dies, and the stick has ever bigger problems to wield itself against.

It's about time the carrot was given an outing for a change.


Mark Wadsworth said...

Government carrots are just as bad as government sticks, and in some cases worse.

For example, they have this idea about 'getting empty homes back on the market'. The stick would be to fine owners of empty properties - great, it's free money for the local council. The carrot would be to subsidise private landlords to repair their properties - which costs the local council i.e. the council taxpayer money.

In this case, I prefer the stick. But on the whole, those are our sticks and our carrots, not the government's.

Junican said...

I'm not sure that you have game theory quite right, but I am not sure. I thought that game theory was all about gaining a GENERAL advantage for all by co-operation - in the sense, for example, that lions hunt together to catch and bring down prey. The fact that, once the prey has been caught and brought down, it is every lion for itself is immaterial as regards the absolute necessity to catch and bring down the prey in the first place.

I cannot see how carrots and sticks come into game theory.

Having said that, I very much admire your thinking as ever.

As regards your idea that MPs etc (etc means local authorities and all other groups with authority) 'weigh up the pros and cons'. I have come to the conclusion that, in fact, they do no such thing. They rely on some sort of 'gut instinct' - in the same way that people, only a couple of centuries ago, relied upon their gut instinct to say that the Sun revolves around the Earth. The 'gut instinct' of MPs etc says that smoking is bad. As a result, they go along with everyone else in their group (game theory!) and decide to ban it. As a result, the inquisition begins. Next, the gut instinct will proscribe alcohol - and the inquisition will begin again. And, of course, we have incandescent light bulbs from the EU - same thing - and the whole global warming thing.

All just gut instinct.

However, as you say, all this gut instinct is contrary to game theory. It is not in the general interest, in the long run, for some individuals in the tribe to press their own agendas to the detriment on others. Ask yourself, how many wars have been started by just such thinking?

This is contrary to your statement that MPs etc actually measure things. They don't.

It would be really good if MPs etc actually DID start measuring things - I mean, they themselves - rather than accepting the word so some self-serving committee of 'experts'.

In this respect, can I point to the nonsense being emitted by Liverpool City Council about the dangers of 'youths' seeing smoking on cinema screens? You must know about it. The 'committee of experts' here was (is) the City Health Primary Trust (or whatever they call themselves) - using taxpayer funds to lobby their own City Council.

When environmentalists get their way (purely because MPs etc don't ask the right questions) and the lights go out, I can confidently predict that the first people to squeal will be the environmentalists and the MPs etc.

I am sorry to go on so, but I hope that the central idea that MPs etc simply use their (mistaken) gut instinct rings a bell.

Junican said...

Needless to say, I forgot to include my main point.

If it is true that MPs etc have to begin to think for themselves, and they do, then organisations like Ash become irrelevent.

JuliaM said...

I think someone must be reading your blog in Windsor & Maidenhead Council... ;)

Jonathan said...

Unless you are already familiar with his work it sounds to me as though you ought to start reading some Nock.

Frank Davis said...

I don't want sticks. And I don't want carrots. I just want these bastards out of my life.