Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Why Obama Needs to Stand Firm and Why He Can't


1.  Prisoner's dilemma research shows that the Tit for Tat strategy is the most successful in long term game relationships.  A game is a situation in which the outcome of a relationship is affected by how each player acts.  The Prisoner's Dilemma is one kind of game.  The basic choices are 1)  cooperate and 2) defect. Tit-for-Tat strategy is to cooperate in the first round of a relationship (or negotiation) and after that mimic the other player's last strategy. 
This model would suggest that Obama should begin by cooperating, and then copy the Republicans' last strategy.  The Republicans have been defecting in almost every interaction with the Obama administration.  But Obama, for the most part, cooperates.  In a prisoner's dilemma situation this is a sure losing strategy over time.

2.  African-American males are successful in the white world when they act in a non-threatening way.  If they can maintain self-control, suppress anger, and respond instead with quiet, measured, rational words, they lower the likelihood that they will trigger latent white stereotypes of blacks.  Getting angry and articulating black frustration and anger may work well inside the black community, it doesn't play well outside it.

Thus, these two models would suggest that Obama needs to stand up to Republicans every time they defect (do not cooperate), but all his training, indeed, the very behavior that has allowed him to get elected president, now prevents him from doing what he needs to do - express his feelings and stand up and strike back at Republicans.  Now that he has made it to the presidency, he has to learn how to let go of the black male survival tactics and act, not like a black male, but like an equal to all the others in DC who are allowed to show appropriate anger. 

The Background

[Note:  1.  These aren't terribly difficult concepts, but they run contrary to how many people think.  Going over them in class, it was much easier when there was interactive discussion so that if students didn't grasp a point, I would know and could try a different approach.  I also was able to use a simulation exercise that let students see for themselves how they fell into traps based on their own models, traps which cost them.  My point here is to suggest that if this is new to you and doesn't make sense right off, that you shouldn't simply dismiss it, but be humble and accept that there might be something here worth pursuing.  At the very least, I'd ask you not dismiss it simply because you don't get it.  You can also use the comments option below. (To do that, click on the word comment at the bottom of the post.)  Or go to pursue other sources that explain it better than I do.  If you know this well and disagree with it, or I've made an error,  point out those problems in the comments too.
2.  These are just two conceptual models for thinking about this issue.  They offer an explanation.  There are a lot of other ways to look at the situation, which could be better models for finding strategies for Obama.]

Why Obama Needs to Stand Firm

Game Theory -  Game theory is an field of mathematics that examines games.  Games are relationships in which  
  • two or more players interact 
  • how each player plays (behaves, acts)  
  • affects the outcome of all the players. 
Commonly understood 'games' are the obvious examples - chess, football, etc.  But game theory extends to all interactions where the outcome of each player is affected by the behavior of all the players, such activities as finding a parking place, elections, investing in the stock market, or making dinner.

Types of Games  
(I'm focusing just on two types of games.)

Zero-sum games are games where there is a winner and a loser, where the more I win, the more you lose.  In zero-sum games, the size of the outcome is fixed.  It's like a pie.  There is just one pie.  The more pie I eat, the less there is for you.  It's a $10 prize.  The winner gets the whole $10.   Many people see every interaction with other people as a win-lose situation and thus they do everything they can to win as much of the pie as they can.  In their eyes, life is a never ending competition for fixed, finite resources.

Variable-sum games are where the outcome itself could vary depending on how the players play.  Variable-sum games are not as obvious as zero-sum games because the activities we tend to call 'games' tend to be zero-sum in design.  But having a barbecue is also a type of game.  Does one person supply all the food and do all the cooking or is it potluck?  How this is worked out will affect whether there is a lot of delicious food or nothing edible.  The outcome - amount of good food - is not finite, but variable.

But we can look at traditional zero-sum games and see them, too, as variable sum if we pull back a bit.  They are zero-sum if we only look narrowly at who wins and who loses.  But if we look at all the outcomes, it becomes clear they are variable sum games too.  Take a boxing match.  If we only think of winner and loser.  It's zero-sum.  But if we look at other outcomes it's variable sum.  Will the boxers emerge healthy and whole or will they be injured or even permanently maimed?  I might lose the match, but be able to write a book about my experience and gain fame and fortune even though I lost.  Or I could become depressed and drink myself to oblivion.  The outcome is extremely variable if we consider all the outcomes and not just the win-lose and who gets the prize.

One more example.  Was the first Iraq war a zero-sum or variable-sum game?  [I'm not going to answer that here, but I will respond to readers in the comment section.]

The Prisoner's Dilemma

The prisoner's dilemma is a particular type of game.  It comes from the police tactic of separating two prisoners and telling each:

"The other guy has confessed.  You're going to jail.  If you confess too, you'll only get three years.  But if you refuse, you'll get ten years because your buddy confessed."

The prisoner has to determine if his partner confessed or not.  If he didn't confess, there's no evidence and they will both walk.

So, the basic structure of the prisoner's dilemma game is this:

  • If you cooperate and the other player cooperates - you both come out ahead.
  • If you cooperate but the other player defects   -  the defector comes out better than the cooperator.  (The reverse is true if you defect and the other player cooperates)
  • If you both defect  - both lose, but not as much as when one cooperates and one defects.
Robert Axelrod used computer simulations of prisoner's dilemma games and found that the winning strategy - over a period of many games - was Tit for Tat.

Tit for Tat Strategy

In this strategy, you begin by cooperating, and then copy the other player's last move.  This doesn't necessarily work in individual games, but the player who uses Tit-for-Tat in every game comes out ahead overall in a series of games.

Examples that Axelrod uses include the arms race and the conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians.  If both players defect all the time, they both lose more and more as they go along.

I recognize that just reading what I've written above isn't going to convince the skeptics.  One needs to read further, even participate in simulations, to see how this plays out in life.  But I can only lead you to the water.  Most will have to do more reading on this to really get it.  But I'll go on anyway.

Implications for Obama

You led off by cooperating.  The Republicans have defected every time.  The only times you (defected) stood up to them - say on health care - you ultimately won.  The worst situation is to cooperate when the other player defects.  You fall into a deeper and deeper hole.  And they are not encouraged to cooperate, because they know that you will cave and cooperate again.

Now, both sides defecting constantly is a lose-lose situation for the nation in the long run.  And there are other games going on besides the votes in Congress.  The Republicans are clearly winning the game of interpreting what is happening to the American people.  If a plurality of people get their only news from Fox News, that will probably continue to happen.  Democrats have to better communicate the stories about what's happening in DC.

But with the Republicans saying the deficit is the most important thing (they won't fund unemployment benefits UNLESS the money is made up somewhere else) yet adding to that deficit by insisting on tax cuts for the top 2%, the Democrats have an easy opportunity to score.  If they can't capitalize on the Republicans now accepting extended unemployment assistance AND adding to the deficit with the tax cut extensions, then they have no chance of winning.   This is a message the American public would understand.  And when the Republicans can block anything with a 'majority' of 40%, there is another message that Americans can understand.  The minority, not the majority, rules in the Senate.  The minority is holding the country hostage.

Why it will be hard for Obama to show his anger and stand firm against the Republicans

Black American males have not traditionally succeeded in white American through confrontation.  When they have stood up to white authority, even white non-authority, black men tend to lose.  This is not a story most white people know, but every black person does.  Black parents teach their sons that they have to be respectful with everyone and if stopped by the police to show their hands and not do anything to give the cops an excuse to shoot them.

Terrance at Pam's House Blend expresses this training clearly:
As an African-American male, I have always been taught to show respect to the police, even when or if I feel that the officer is wrong. As a survival technique, I am teaching this to my son and I convey this to my students and all of the other young people that I engage in my lectures. My parents and other elders have always taught me "an argument with a cop is an argument you will always lose ... if you don't get along with the police, you will probably go along with the police and that's a trip you do not want to take. Even when you're right, if you fail to comply, you're wrong. You're objective during an encounter with the police is to leave that encounter in the same manner in which you entered it, in one piece. You can challenge the officer later in court. That's 'Black Man - 101.'"

Ask any African-American mother about her teenage son if you don't believe this. Here's a post from My Sweet Brown Son.  First she talks about how her 6' 250 lb son was asked by his high school football coach for his class schedule.

. . . Take a good hard look at him on the 50-yard line, and it’s easy to get it twisted: He looks like an angry, aggressive, big, black jock—a guy who crushes the opponent on the field, and off the field, probably doesn’t put much effort into much more than football, girls, and black boy shenanigans.

I don’t know if this is what one of his team’s assistant coaches had on his mind recently when he called the boy over to take a look at his class schedule. Mazi handed it to him and shifted nervously from foot to foot, his mind on who knows what. I can only guess what he expected to find, but when that coach looked at Mazi’s schedule and then back up at Mazi, I could see in his eyes that his perception of who my boy is was completely, forever changed.

See, what that coach wasn’t expecting to see is this.

Image from My Sweet Brown So

That’s Honors Physics. Honors Algebra. Advanced Placement Psychology. Honors Language Arts. And Mechanical Drafting—the first in a series of courses that’ll put Mazi on firm footing toward becoming an architect. Peep the grades: All A’s, and one B. He’s number 44 in a class of 546—and still climbing.
She goes on to speak of her fears for her son:
And every time that child leaves this house, I fear that someone will look at him, his size, his skin color, his swagger, and see what they want to see, and not who Mazi is. Not a day goes by without us warning him to be respectful, to watch his tone, to be extra vigilant when approaching people in his path. And last week he got his license and bought himself a car with the cash he makes as a lifeguard, which of course means that now when he snatches his keys and heads for the door, I'm a nervous wreck thinking that he's going to get stopped by the cops.

I have good reason to be nervous for him, you know. In just the past week, three—THREE!—black men have been shot, two killed . . . [Emphasis added.  This was a Jan 19, 2009 post.]
Jonathan Capehart in a Washington Post piece explains another aspect of the controlled anger of successful black men:
Black men, especially educated black men, grew up with images of non-violent protests in the face of aggressive policemen, consequences of actually "displaying anger" like the Rodney King situation and are conditioned not to "act out" in crisis situations. Even in sports, you see "fits of rage" with black athletes, but even that is more controlled than, say, hockey, where if black athletes were to display that level of rage -- it would be called a riot!
If Obama were to display anger he runs the risk of Angry Black Man syndrome, becoming too scary or threatening to the public, immediately non-presidential! . . .
. . ."You can't show anger, otherwise you are judged a certain way," said one prominent friend who would only speak about this on background. "It's already a societal thing where people find black men dangerous. So you can't be angry.... You learn early on there are certain lines you do not cross." Think about it. There's no African American version of, say, Rahm Emanuel, the White House chief of staff with a widely known and celebrated reputation for F-bombs and confrontation. 
In a more recent Washington Post article - after the elbow in the lip and Wikileaks - Courtland Milloy writes:
By most accounts, Obama acts like a black man behind closed doors. He talks trash while shooting hoops, talks Chicago South Side tough with his aides and conveys a range of emotions, including anger.
Once in public, though, he demurs - as if upholding some unspoken bargain with white America to never look like an angry black man in exchange for continued off-the-charts "likability" ratings and a shot at reelection in 2012.
For a more historical look at this, we see an analysis of black male images in the movies:

From WW Norton, Looking at Films
In that film, Poitier's role (a black doctor treating a white racist) was a type he was to repeat many times over: a character who, when faced with adversity and racism, expresses his anger with controlled eloquence, effecting change through the strength of his will and the righteousness of his cause. In Ralph Nelson's Lilies of the Field (1963), Poitier played another righteous character, a handyman who helps a group of German nuns build a chapel in the Arizona desert, and he became the first African American actor to win an Oscar for a leading role. Poitier played similarly admirable and well-received characters in Stanley Kramer's Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (1967) and James Clavell's To Sir, with Love (1967). In the former, Poitier portrayed a highly respected doctor with impeccable international credentials who falls in love with a wealthy, white San Francisco college girl; and in the latter, he portrayed an English schoolteacher who in just a few weeks turns a ragged group of East End students into proper young British adults. To such roles, Poitier brought a dignified, controlled, and stoic presence. He played heroes who sublimated their aggression and passion by mastering socially sanctioned manners, in every sense of that word.
Whites may respond that things have changed, and they have.  But if you've ever been bitten by a dog and/or know lots of people who have, you learn to act carefully when there's a stray dog around you don't know.  I first became aware of this different way of seeing the world in 1967 when I visited a black friend at the University of Missouri.  Wherever we walked around campus he pointed out escape routes if a police car was nearby or a group of menacing white students in his path.  Years later I asked a black colleague at a conference why he was always in a suit and tie.  His answer was, so when (not if) I get stopped by the police, they might think I'm not dangerous and it will be a little easier.

And it's still an issue.  Just last spring I talked to a white woman who had recently married a black man - a man in his fifties who has won the highest honor his profession has to give.  They were driving in New Jersey late at night and were stopped by the police and treated badly. She started to yell at the cops about rights and racial profiling and he very firmly told her to stop and get back in the car.  Later he told her to never, ever do that again.  He's the one who will get the consequences of her righteousness.  

So, the US has created an environment which forces black boys to act submissively dealing with white authorities if they want to stay alive, let alone succeed.  And teaches black men that they have to suppress their anger and be calm, rational, and non-threatening, perhaps most important here - non-confrontational -  if they are going to succeed in the white world.

We have a president, who would NOT be president, had he not learned those lessons well.  But as President he has to mix it up with powerful white men, AS AN EQUAL, not as a black man adapted to succeeding in a white world. 

But no president has all the necessary skills.  They need a vice president and other officials around them to balance their strengths with other strengths. If Obama can't learn to play hardball with white Republicans - not to mention those in his own party - then he has to get some good poker players to advise him and perhaps even sit in for him where he needs these skills.


  1. I ageee, he needs his own version of Karl Rove.

  2. Obama is not making decisions alone and most of the people giving him advice are white agressive males, especially about economic matters. He also has many people in Congress that he is not listening to. Nancy Pelosi did her damndest in the house along with many others who have been very outspoken on many subjects. Obama seems to have trouble learning from his mistakes.

  3. Iraq and gaming theory: can't say I know enough to comment on the choice scenario.

    Regarding the black experience of public anger, I've been slow to get it, but I'm getting there. I've been fortunate to learn through friends called 'minority' and my own experience as a gay man. My experience teaches that we need to be 'in the room' for this conversation. We need to see each other, listen to the rise and fall of stories, of pauses, of irritation, surprise, and yes, even anger.

    It is, after all, a layered conversation dyed in the color bars of Europe's empire doctrines. It is also conversation grounded in our class aspirations of culture, family and education.

    To me, it is having this awakened understanding and having it make a difference in how I act towards others that remains my challenge. It is for president Obama as well.

    A post note: Back to studying. Fellow students are taking to the streets in London today as Parliament takes its vote on increasing student tuition by 300 percent, a huge policy shift in the welfare contract that exists in the UK.


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