Ben: Okay, you ready?
Both: Rock, paper, scissors.
Ben: Ah, alright, scissors cuts paper, I go first. Hi, my name is Ben Klemens.
Liz: I'm Liz Landau
Ben: And this is
Both: Pod, Paper, Scissors.
[Theme music by Liz: You gotta make decisions. Will you coöperate or defect?]
Liz: A new podcast about the hidden forces behind social interactions in the form of games.
Ben: So, Liz, you're a science journalist, you must go to a lot of really great science journalists parties.
Liz: Yeah. I've been really fortunate to cultivate an amazing group of friends who are journalists, as well as people on social media who I don't know that well, but who've had really illustrious careers.
Ben: So do you have a good time swapping ideas all the time?
Liz: Yeah, it's kind of funny, because I'm on some of these private social media channels where people do post that they're working on certain really interesting topics. And you know, Does anybody else have sources to interview on these topics? And I've always thought that there was a little bit of a risk in that, because if you share a really good story idea, there is the risk that someone else could steal it. The only reason that these social media groups can exist and be so fruitful is that there's this implicit trust that if somebody is asking for help, someone else in the group isn't going to go ahead and take that idea and pitch it to a different news outlet.
Ben: Of course, the game theory, Game Theorists have a name for this. This is the Prisoner's Dilemma.
Liz: The Prisoner's Dilemma. I've heard of that. But wait, what is Prisoner's Dilemma have to do with journalists and story ideas?
Ben: So I guess we'll start with the story of it.
Liz: Oh, yeah. The Prisoner's Dilemma is kind of a silly story in itself, isn't it?
Ben: Yeah. It's kind of silly.
[Ben yelping over a guitar: When you walk through the garden...]
Liz: Oh, The Wire! I love that show, by former veteran reporter from the Baltimore Sun David Simon on HBO.
Ben: Yes, that one. And it had some clever bits, and maybe this is my only wire anecdote, but I just thought it was so brilliant. Okay, so here's the scene. Bunk, the detective, is in the interrogation room with with hoodlum number one, and he's telling that the hoodlum, well, it's between you and hoodlum number two who's another interrogation room. And if you tell us what what happened, we'll let you off easier, regardless of what hoodlum number two does. To be specific if hoodlum number two, if he snitches on you and you keep your mouth shut, then we only have one side of the story, and you're going to, you're going to be in jail for forever.
Liz: So what you're saying is that there are these two options that this potential criminal has when he's being interrogated by the police. The first is to coöperate with his partner in crime and not snitch, but he also has the option of what we call defection, which is to rat out his compatriot here and if he rats out his partner in crime, he gets an easier sentence. And in fact, a McDonald's meal is that what it was?
Ben: Yeah, so it to continue the The Wire version. Bunk tells who had limb number one, okay, so you know what we're... hoodlum number two was just so coöperative with us. He already defected, to us the Prisoner's Dilemma term, and we took him out to McDonald's, he was just so, y'know, so great with us. Hold on, I have to do something. And so bunk opens the door. He walks out and he nods to the the other detective, and the other detective starts walking hoodlum number two down the hall and hoodlum number two says, You know what, thanks for taking me to McDonald's, but I'm not saying anything. I ain't no snitch. And, of course, you know, he shoves a hamburger in his mouth and walks by the interrogation room and hoodlum number one is like, I can't believe you did this and, you know, freaks out and of course, he's gonna defect.
Liz: Wow. Soo it's interesting that this very theoretical problem that's in basically every economics textbook as a thought experiment, actually played out on this classic TV show The Wire.
Ben: Yes. And that's why you need to just hit pause on this podcast right now. Go watch all five seasons of The Wire, and come back when you're done. Don't bother with the last episode. Once you and the next last episode, you can come back and we'll, we'll keep going.
Ben: Okay, we're back. I hope you enjoyed those five seasons. Let's keep going.
[Ben, hollering over a guitar again: way down in the hole.]
Ben: We can get back to the situation with you and your fellow journalists. That's also a Prisoner's Dilemma because we can coöperate or you can defect.
Liz: Oh, I see. So when we have Fly this Prisoner's Dilemma situation to journalists sharing their ideas with each other. The idea of coöperating is this implicit trust that I was talking about where you ask people for help with an article idea, and the other person does not steal it. And the defection would be that another person does steal it.
Ben: Yeah, yeah, exactly. So the Prisoner's Dilemma story, it's pretty frickin' contrived. And it actually kind of annoys me, that's like the story they tell. But it keeps showing up in all these situations where one party has to trust another or coöperate with another.
Liz: Yeah. And really, if we were all so selfish, as the Prisoner's Dilemma says that we should be, then these Facebook groups that I'm part of like, they kind of couldn't exist.
Ben: Yeah, we kind of depend on this trust to make the world go round. Well, we'll talk about some of the ways in which that that can be built in sort of an institutional way over the next couple of episodes. And there are a lot of ways to do it.
Liz: So you know, a lot of journalists who are freelancers, they don't have consistent clients, and sometimes some of these magazines, they won't guarantee that they'll publish your piece. You just kind of have to work on spec.
Ben: By that you mean...work for free?
Liz: Yeah, pretty much. It's a rough world out there.
Ben: So if you're working for free, then that makes it really hard for the other journalists who actually need to get paid so they can pay rent, yeah.
Liz: absolutely. And I mean, I am guilty of accepting an extremely low commission from a magazine's website that I just really wanted to get published. And this is how they're able to keep their rates so low is that enough people want that brand name recognition on their article.
Ben: So this is also a Prisoner's Dilemma, because in this case, defection is working for free, and coöperating is holding fast. So if you're worried if you really want something out on spec, you actually want the exposure. I used to work do a lot of policy work, I worked at Brookings for a while, and I would publish things for free, because I needed the exposure. That was that was my, that was my payoff. And if I could get paid, if I if I could actually somehow hold still and demand that I get paid, that was also like an even better payoff.
Liz: You know, it would be interesting, if this one group I'm part of if we all just decided that we are not going to accept commissions below a certain rate for anything that we write. However, we don't represent the entire population of writers of these kinds of articles. So of course, people outside the group could still be writing for very much less. And as long as somebody is willing to take little to no pay, then certain outlets can continue using content from people for very little to no pay.
Ben: And of course, there's a term for these sorts of groups where everybody works together: The Union.
Liz: Oh, that's what unions are for.
Ben: Yeah. And this, this is really the origin of why we have unions, because—
Liz: [Singing sweetly] That's what unions are for...
Ben: Yes, in good times and bad times. We're going to keep sticking together and and refusing to
Liz: accept low, yeah, refusing to accept low wages, Ben: Right.
Liz: and, you know, demanding benefits, such as health insurance and retirement plan, things like that.
Ben: And if you didn't have a union, then defection is easy, right? It's easy for the employer to say, Okay, well, you're asking for a lot of money. And so we're going to find somebody who is willing to, to walk out, walk out, right. And in the Prisoner's Dilemma itself, right, we call it, we have the derogatory term "snitch" for the person who defects who breaks from the group. And in union land, you know, there, you might have a "scab", someone who breaks in defects from the union, right? And in both cases, it's derogatory for a reason, It hurts the group, when somebody←it's not quite betrays trust in this case, but doesn't work together and says, Naw I'm going to, I'm going to go alone.
Liz: Yeah, you can imagine, in some of these big strikes that have happened, like there was a writer strike several years ago. It's like everybody who is a writer in Hollywood decided to strike. But then like, one by one, people started writing again for low pay and letting everyone else strike. That's not a very effective strike now, is it?
Ben: Yeah, that's about it for it. So this is what unions are for and they get a pretty bad rep for all sorts of things about, you know, how they're run and so on and so forth.
Liz: Yeah. Why do people not like unions?
Ben: Because they're a lot of money spent on getting people to not like unions.
Ben: and you know, yeah, some, some of them have not behaved in great ways that—the big debate about unions is whether people should be kind of it's described as being coerced into joining a union or being forced to join union, etc, etc. And now you see why that has to happen.
Liz: Right? Because if everybody in a certain group is not in the Union, then the union can't be effective.
Ben: And if everybody is coöperating, it's good for everybody benefits. Do you remember the story of Ulysses and the sirens?
Liz: [Singing like the little mermaid] Aaaaah, aaaaah
Ben: yeah, like that. That's what siren sound like. But they were deadlier. Can you give me deadlier?
Liz: [Singing the same, maybe a little more operatic] Aaaaah, aaaaah
Ben: Yeah, much better, much better. Yeah, so the story is that Ulysses on on his ship is returning home.
Liz: He really wants to hear those sirens, doesn't he?
Ben: Yeah, he really wants to hear them. But the story is, every person who hears the sirens is just so enamored that they jump off the ship and drown.
Liz: That's why the sirens were evil.
Ben: Yeah, that's why they were evil. And their hobby was making sailors drown. So here's what Ulysses did. He tells his crew members, okay, all of you are putting wax in your ears, you're not going to hear the sirens. And you're going to tie me to the mast, you're going to tie me to the mast. And I'm going to just listen to the sirens. And I know that when I hear them, I'm going to want to throw myself overboard. And I'm going to ask you please untie me, etc, etc. Don't do it. Don't, don't untie me from the mast. So they sail through and Ulysses gets to hear the sirens.
Liz: Wait, what does this have to do with Prisoner's Dilemma?
Ben: The idea of tying yourself to the mast beforehand, you say, I'm going to bind myself to do something that later I may feel like I don't, it would be nice for me to cheat. Right? So
Liz: Is this like people paying dues to the union.
Ben: Right? So if I have to join the union, you know, I'm like, coerced in in one argument in one way. But by being coerced, I'm frickin' better off because I am tied to the mast and I can't cheat. I can't say no, screw it. I'm defecting. I'm just going to take minimum wage when we want to do better than minimum wage or what have you.
Liz: I see. So it is a way of securing trust.
Ben: Yes, yes, exactly. So there are lots of situations like this in the game theoretic world, where it seems like you're doing something bad for yourself initially, but by tying yourself to the mast, you're stronger in the end, and you come out better than you would have if before the fact you said, No, no, I want to remain free to do whatever I want to do. Well, we'll talk about the game of chicken in a couple of episodes. [Liz squawks.] Yes, but it's not chickens playing chess, like the song, it's, it's going to be a different kind of thing. And again, it's going to be one of those stolies—We're just going to foreshadow it for now—where tying yourself to the mast makes you better off.
Liz: Do you smell oil?
Liz: Yeah, like, nation's producing oil.
Ben: So that was an unnecessary segue. Let me give you another example of a union, OPEC.
Liz: [in her evil voice] OPEC.
Ben: Oh, yes. oil producing, I forget.
Liz: It's The organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries?
Ben: Yes, exactly what she said, these are petroleum exporting countries. And they have a similar problem, that they want all of your money and—It's supply and demand. If supply is short, then you make more money, right? The price of oil per barrel stays high. But if the price of oil per barrel barrel is high, then you want to sell more oil, right?
Liz: Oh, I see. So while individual countries have an incentive to set their own oil prices, and make as much money as possible, OPEC keeps them honest and make sure that everybody is coöperating.
Ben: Yes. So it's basically a union among the capitalists.
Liz: Does it work?
Ben: For the most part? Yes. Recently. We're recording in. What month is it's March, Liz: March. Ben: March, March 2020.
Liz: So this is March 2020. And recently, there was some incident with OPEC that really drove prices wild. Down, down, down.
Ben: Yeah, there was a breakdown in in the negotiations and Saudi Arabia was like, screw it, we're defecting. We're going to walk away for a little while. And we're just going to flood the market like crazy. We're going to flood the market like the Gulf of Mexico, it's just going to be covered in oil.
Liz: Oh, I see. So if supply goes way up, that means that the price is going to go way down.
Ben: Yeah. And from what I read, I don't, don't buy barrels of oil very often. Price went from like 50 bucks a barrel to 20 bucks a barrel or something.
Ben: Yeah. And there's stories about why they did these things. But for our purposes, it was a defection. And it was big news, because these defections don't happen pretty often. OPEC is pretty good at maintaining its collusion and keeping countries from saying, Well, you know, the price of oil is really high thanks to our efforts. So why don't we sell more?
Liz: You know, I've been thinking a little bit about the environment and how everybody's individual incentive is to just pollute and drive and do whatever they want to. Meanwhile everybody's carbon dioxide emissions are destroying the planet, and ecosystems are suffering. All these extreme weather events are happening. It's in some sense everybody's incentive to coöperate. However, individually, everybody just wants to be selfish, right?
[16:19] Ben: Indeed, there are so many Prisoner's Dilemma dilemma problems, so many prisoners dilemmas in the environmental field, we could probably do a whole episode next.
Liz: Oh, yeah. Let's do that.
Ben: Those sounds good.
Liz: Great. Well, tune in next time to learn more about game theory on...
Both: Pod, Paper, Scissors.
[outro music: You gotta make decisions...]