Gaming Our Way Out of Crisis


This is a guest note, exclusive to The Washington Note, by James P. Pinkerton — a contributor to the Fox News Channel and frequent poster at Pinkerton is also fellow at the New America Foundation, and contributing editor at The American Conservative magazine.
America is in crisis, and yet a great resource, available to all of us, is substantially untapped. The most powerful development of the last 40 years, anywhere in the world–the flowering of computer/Internet culture–has occurred mostly within the United States. And yet the US government has been generally uninterested. Sure, officials are happy to have the gadgets that Silicon Valley provides, and happy to enjoy the campaign contributions and tax revenues, but politicos and policy wonks have distinctly not been interested in absorbing the deeper implications of geekdom: that computers and the Net offer new tools for problem-solving–most notably games and simulations–that could bypass traditional governing mechanisms. So while entrenched elites might have a self-interested reason to reject new problem-solving tools, such rejection doesn’t make sense for the country, because we need all the help we can get.
My colleague Steve Clemons has blogged extensively about the “Solarium Project,” a role-playing study of Cold War strategy, as conducted by the Eisenhower administration. That was back in 1953, when the Cold War raged hot in Korea and the coldest of cold everywhere else. The main problem: What was the best approach to dealing with the Soviet Union? At the behest of the newly sworn-in 34th President, three different teams advocated different approaches to the Cold War; the “game” was “played” within the White House complex. Eisenhower himself, of course, was hardly unfamiliar with critical issues of war and peace, but as the first Republican president in 20 years, he felt the need to sound out all possible policy options. The “winner” of the Solarium Project was “containment”–that is, a continuation of Truman administration policies. But the containment idea, as it went forward, was vastly strengthened by Eisenhower’s bipartisan buy-in; the Republican ratified the overall Democratic policy, even as he put an honorable end to the Korean War. And so while it would be too much to say that the Cold War was won in the White House solarium, it is fair to say that America’s successful Cold War strategy was strengthened by role-playing theater at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
As a geopolitically minded soldier-turned-politician, Ike understood the power of simulations, of imaginative alternative exercises. What the poet Coleridge called the “willing suspension of disbelief for the moment” is the essence of such speculation; it helps to get oneself in a different mindset, to see old problems from new angles.
And so we come to the present day, when America once again faces peril. What to do? Maybe, as a way of assessing the situation, we should take a page from Eisenhower’s playbook.We should try “gaming” through the problems–and various solutions; we need new and better perspectives on our most stubborn dilemmas. And today we have an advantage that Ike didn’t have; we have robust gaming technology, created by some of our best and geekiest. Indeed, thanks to the Internet, we have the capacity to include, in a constructive way, the input of virtually all Americans.

Let’s start with the economy. Unemployment hovers near double-digits, even as the national debt pushes up toward 100 percent of our economic output. At what point does unemployment become intolerable, even as the debt becomes unmanageable? At what point do we become Greece? Robert Samuelson, the distinguished economics columnist for The Washington Post, points to trillion-dollar deficits as far as the eye can see, concluding that America could, in fact, be headed toward banana-republic-ization. Indeed, Samuelson looks at the fate of industrialized countries on both sides of the Atlantic and concludes that the welfare state itself is in a “death spiral.”
Not every expert is as pessimistic as Samuelson–and others are pessimistic for different reasons. But for their part, the American people are plenty worried. A Gallup poll taken in May shows that by a 74:24 margin, Americans count themselves as “dissatisfied,” not “satisfied,” with the way things are going in the nation.
Yet as we all know, American politics today are gridlocked. The Republicans are against tax increases, the Democrats are against spending cuts. And amidst that crossfiring, anything resembling a “third way”–to say nothing of a genuinely new idea, the political equivalent of a better mousetrap–is shot down immediately in the partisan and ideological crossfire.
Many Washington wonks bemoan such polarization and paralysis, but, in fact, they themselves are part of the problem. On the left and on the right, ideologues speak to each other–fight with each other is more accurate–in obscure and jargonized language that seems almost designed to exclude ordinary Americans from the conversation. Indeed, a battle between dueling purveyors of esoterica has its advantages–to the purveyors; their policy abstractions are a “barrier to entry,” keeping the unwashed out of Washington. But the result of such relentless abstruseness is the alienation of ordinary Americans, who are less inclined to pay attention, and less inclined to vote. And it’s politicians who are, in a way, victimized. In such a hostile environment, they might win an election–somebody has to win–but when they do win, they find that their mandate is brittle, at best. If the American people are not deeply consulted about proposed policies, they will not be deeply invested in the success of those policies.
Today we are seeing the price: President Obama thought that he had a broad mandate for change, but he and the Democrats soon discovered that they did not. Republicans might soon discover the same weakness on their side.
So why don’t we enlist the American people in the effort? Why don’t we get creative as to inclusivity? Both parties, after all, are confident that a more fully engaged electorate will be more likely to support their agenda–right?
In the past, we used newspapers, radio, and television to communicate ideas. And while most of that old-paradigm communication was one-way and top-down, at least it was communication. More recently, of course, we have had the Internet, which opens up new vistas of interactivity, allowing for a genuine real-time nationwide conversation. People enjoy that sort of empowerment on Facebook–more than 100 million Americans have accounts on a service that has existed for only six years–so why can’t they have that sort of connectivity with their government?
So we could think about a “Solarium Project” for the whole country. It could be informative, it could be fun–and at the end of the process, we could see a new and powerful mandate for constructive change.
There is nothing new about seeking out the wisdom of crowds. Back in the early 18th century, the British government had plenty of power. But Queen Anne and her ministers understood that mere force could not elicit the creativity that was needed to solve one of the great problems of the age: the navigational calculation of longitude. Decades later, John Harrison, a self-educated clockmaker, was awarded a substantial monetary prize for inventing the marine chronometer, which enabled British ships to navigate more accurately and safely. Harrison’s great achievement was described in a best-selling book a few years ago, Longitude; the epic British expansion over the following century-and-a-half would simply not have been possible without Harrison’s prize-winning invention.
The American people are a great potential resource, waiting to be tapped–if we know how to tap them. Not only do we have undiscovered John Harrisons, who could transform everything with a single invention, but we are also a country full of contestants and sweepstakers and lottery-ticket-buyers, each jockeying for a better chance at winning a big prize. To put it another way, this is a country full of invisible hands, willing and able to improve the commonweal–even the government–as the fruit of their own personal ambition and self-interest. And we like to play games. From sports to snooker to Scrabble, we enjoy being part of the action. And if we aren’t playing, we are watching, and odds-making, and wagering.
OK, so we know there’s energy in games, but what’s the practical heuristic value of, say, baseball to our national problems? Admittedly, not much, most of the time–although the potential value of baseball as a tool of diplomacy is considerable. Forty years ago, America and China grew closer together as the result of “ping pong diplomacy”; we will rediscover, someday, the value of baseball when we seek better relations with such b


12 comments on “Gaming Our Way Out of Crisis

  1. Austin Condo says:

    I recently tweeted and stumbled upon your post. Really your post is very informative and I enjoyed your opinions. Do you use twitter or stumbleupon? So I can follow you there. I am hoping you post again soon.


  2. Paul Norheim says:

    Off topic: The London Review of Books offers a very interesting
    article about the intricacies of Egyptian politics at the end of
    Mubarak’s regime. It looks like most of the powerful players –
    USA, Israel, even the Muslim Brotherhood – despite Mubarak’s
    unpopularity – prefer the status quo.
    An excerpt:


  3. Peter McBrien says:

    Follow-up to my Etc. Etc. Etc. in my 1st post.
    At what point does unemployment become intolerable?
    Ans. When the gal next door can no longer afford to feed her neighbor!
    At what point do we become Greece?
    Ans. When CA, MI and NY belly up or when Portugal & England


  4. rc says:

    No need for expensive hi-tech crap. Go purchase a simple Monopoly board game and play it until you get to the stage where it reflects the world as you see it now. Then you’ll realize that there is no answer except to start a new game. It’s called the ‘reset’ button — or in ancient Hebrew, the 50-year Jubilee.
    Unfortunately, the U.S. is like the monopoly banker who prints their own money and cannot stop the game — it stops because others disengage and walk away.
    If this guest post is correct then DC pundits risk confusing the end-game scenario with dazzling technology and failing commerce. What exactly is the new contract between the odious rich and powerful elites, and the new unemployed poor who don’t vote, don’t count and increasingly don’t care beyond the next fix?
    With the next national ‘fix’ increasingly coming from Colombia rather than Washington DC, we can only suppose Charles Manson’s vision of ‘Helter Skelter’ is on the way — accurate except for the timing.
    No ‘Mario’ hero is going to fix this mess. DC doesn’t need the 95% who don’t own 95% of wealth to tell them they are hungry and need food and shelter and health care — they need the 5% who to realize their time is up unless they let it go.
    No, bread and circuses will not sustain the masses (in this case pizza and nintendo). Chinese and Roman empires have come and gone to prove the point. Obama came in on “change we need” but who can imagine the game changes needed to move to the next level? Is imagination needed, or compassion?
    Increasingly the new agenda is being set beyond the U.S. national boundaries. In the end capitalism is dead — has been for decades, and it’s not even moving in its last death throws. What exists is a system of transnational virtual debt that, in reality, is mutually canceled by virtue of interlocking international unsustainability.
    All that keeps this mutual debt from flowing to a natural end-game resolution is corrupt accounting practices that extend endless I.O.Us into some multi-trillion dollar inter-generational ‘pay-back’ horizon.
    America is yearning to be ‘born again’ — but first it must die to what it is. No easy task, and it cannot be faked by game simulation. Dark end-game scenarios can be motivators — as was the chase in the fall of apartheid in South Africa.
    The ultimate fear is just round the corner: irrelevance. The whole world will declare war on the USA. Not bombs and terror: rather just getting on with life without it (as the corrupt banker).


  5. Mr.Murder says:

    There’s an Enron video game out? We need a jolt of creativity. Who gets to take on the Death Star?
    We actually need a return to hard handed regulation. Speak softly, carry a big ol’ whoppin’ stick.
    Gaming could plot contingencies of the current deregulatory model. Will Play Station need the next bailout, at 400 bucks a game console?
    Life is sport. Sports have rules.


  6. PissedOffAmerican says:

    Its comical seeing a Fox News propaganda agent nattering on with sentences such as….
    “Many Washington wonks bemoan such polarization and paralysis, but, in fact, they themselves are part of the problem. On the left and on the right, ideologues speak to each other–fight with each other is more accurate–in obscure and jargonized language that seems almost designed to exclude ordinary Americans from the conversation”
    What is more polarizing than the partisan SHIT that Fox News peddles, having discovered long ago that there is a whole army of sleezebags willing to masquerade as members of the Fourth Estate to push partisan ideology, base propaganda, and general horseshit?
    These people like Pinkerton and his scumball masters are ALREADY “gaming” us, with a steady stream of right wing garbage designed to divide, divert, distract, and obscure. Now, we see him seeking to legitimize the practice. And why not? Why not openly produce fantasies and bullshit for a change, instead of pretending that they are presenting us with real facts or news?
    Give it a go, Pinkerton. Tell ya what, why don’t you put Elmer Fudd on the forefront of this effort, and when you assay the public’s input, prior to lying about what the majority REALLY has to say, you can tsk tsk and mumble “silly wabbit” to all of us outside the beltway peons that are getting willy willy sick of you people fuckin’ us over with false narratives, outright lies, and elephant piss.


  7. Paul Wilkinson says:

    The last sentence of the second paragraph in my comment above is in the wrong place. It would be better as the third sentence of the third paragraph.
    Another point that comes to mind, however, is that when finance becomes a game in which some participants can transfer away their risk of loss, market discipline is critical to prevent the player transferring his risk of loss from exploiting his information advantage over other players. And in the case of securities, market discipline requires the timely disclosure of all material information about the securities. The sad thing is, many of the systems Jim describes for disclosure in other arenas are far superior to the systems used for trillions of dollars in mortgage backed securities, not to mention municipal and other government securities.


  8. Paul Wilkinson says:

    If a fraction of the time and effort spent analyzing baseball statistics for fantasy baseball leagues had been spent analyzing potential mortgage backed securities flows of funds in the late 90s, the bubble wouldn’t have grown nearly as big. Alas, baseball statistics were much more easily available than mortgage securities statistics. Like Oakland A’s manager Billy Beane, regulation could be much better informed by Bill James than by the pre-Moneyball traditions of the game. When metrics are open and transparent, you have a national pastime like baseball. When they’re inaccessible and incomparable, you have an international disaster like the RMBS crisis.
    It turns out that some of the biggest proponents of data tagging for securities disclosure (XBRL) were also big Second Life fans. They succeeded in getting data tagging for securities disclosure for public companies enacted by the SEC in 2008. So people who wanted to make more money selling securities had to turn to RMBS to find a market where they could charge higher prices for less value, thanks to a witches brew of credit ratings, incomparable ASCII and HTML “disclosure,” and government incentives.
    Regulators outsourced the valuation of public companies — crowdsourced it, in fact — during the Great Depression by instituting a system of comparable disclosure called U.S. GAAP. Things eventually got better. There’s nothing but the tyranny of the status quo to stop them from crowdsourcing the valuation of asset-backed securities as well. The Fed and the GSE’s in conservatorship are sitting on trillions in RMBS. All that’s necessary is to make the actual performance data of the underlying loans as transparent and comparable as baseball statistics and you could set free a market in RMBS as liquid and robust as any. Give the gamers access to real time data on a few hundred million dollars worth of RMBS just like baseball fans get access to real time data on their game of choice. Let them start a fantasy league, except let them use real money. In no time at all, you’ll have a system to create fair market prices for the securities currently being subsidized by taxpayers and limiting recovery with the fear and doubt of opacity and incomparability.


  9. Peter McBrien says:

    There are a lot of Black Ops in the defense industry that employ Computers and Net tools for problem-solving: games, simulations & medical solutions that bypass traditional problem solving mechanisms.
    Our present governmental problem is that the Hill People are wrecking Capitalism; and this is not a game! Come November, pray God, we can take it back.
    The reason for the Market


  10. JohnH says:

    Count me as unpersuaded. Successful gaming requires information. But US policymakers seem more persuaded by their own noble rhetoric that taking a frank look at the real situation.
    Case in point–Brazil siding with Iran on the right to enrich uranium. Well, duh! Brazil currently enriches its own uranium and doesn’t want anyone messing with that right. If Brazil had allowed sanctions on Iran, Brazil could have become the target if the US become displeased with Brazilian regime.
    Anybody could have seen that coming if they had bothered to do a Google search on Brazil and “uranium enrichment.”
    But Hillary, in her infinite wisdom, failed to put those basic facts into her calculations. (Neither did Steve is his “buy off Lula comment.”)
    Hillary is starting to make the incredibly incompetent Condi look smart.


  11. Dan Kervick says:

    I’m skeptical.
    Granted, I have zero involvement in the world of online gaming, so maybe I’m missing something. But it seems to me that the allure of these fantasy gaming worlds is that they offer their players an escape from the unpleasant and dispiriting messiness of real life, not opportunities to become further engaged with real life.
    And I would worry about the prospect of drawing jejune social lessons from theory-laden artificial environments. The rules according to which even the most complex of simulated worlds operate are determined by the whims and theoretical preconceptions of their developers. Human nature is still poorly understood, and to understand it better we need to look at the real thing, not the simulacra invented by programmers.
    One can program and build any kind of social world one wants: a simulated Friedman World, or a Keynes World, or a Malthus World or a Marx World – artificial environments in which, while complex and sometimes surprising, the human beings and institutions are determined to behave in accordance with their designer’s favorite theory of human and political nature. Any one of these worlds can be real enough in most of its aspects to provide a generally convincing portrayal of life. But the results of the simulations will be slightly – sometimes greatly – different; and people will thus come to different conclusions and draw different lessons. And that will just take us back to a debate about which of the simulated worlds best represents the genuine article.
    If we want better empirical evidence about what happens when people interact with each other in various ways, we should study them as they actually interact with each other in those actual ways – not as they pretend to interact with each other in pretend ways. I have never found all those political science simulations very convincing, other than as teaching tools. There is simply no way to get people to respond to the events in a mocked up theatrical situation in the way they would respond in real life if the stakes involved were actual and personal. The participant’s response is bound to be based on what they *believe* a certain kind of person would do, not what that person actually would do.
    Haven’t economists been using simulations to predict market behavior for years? They didn’t work to help stave off the great meltdown, because at bottom these simulations have built into them their designer’s theoretical prejudices about how the world is supposed to work, which frequently fails to match up against the real deal. Optimistic neoclassical economists seem to have underestimated, severely and systematically, the impact of Ponzi investment behavior on real world markets.
    So, while simulators and simulations can be useful in training people to perform some function in an environment that is already well-understood, I am skeptical of their usefulness in predicting the future and solving systemic problems.
    I also have to admit that I have a bit of a bugbear about the massive proliferation of escapist and entertainment technologies in recent years, and the volume of intellectual resources that have been devoted to these technologies. A generation of mathematical and technological brain power is being siphoned away into narcissistic and escapist delights: improved tools for mental and physical masturbation, or for the visual depiction of gratifying acts of violence – as well as into modern alchemical practices for the generation of great sums of wealth from the clever passing around of mere money and the application of only minimal human labor and material resources.
    While otherwise bright people come up with new ways to virtually dismember an ogre or virtually copulate with a princess in the dream world, we have a man-made volcano of petroleum pumping poison into a life-giving body of real water in the real world. Perhaps we would have new and powerful alternative forms of energy right now, along with dramatic transportation and infrastructure innovations, if more of our best and brightest had been encouraged and incentivized to apply their talents to problem-solving in the material and social world, a world that won’t go away and leave them alone, despite their best escapist efforts.
    It’s hard to avoid the impression that the great 19th and 20th century era of other-directed and socially-directed technological innovation has slowed down, as the minds of the clever in our decadent society have been turned toward narcissistic and inverted pursuits.


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