Year In Review

We’ve had a heckuva busy year at Epsilon Theory, so to ring out 2017 I thought it might be helpful to distribute a master list of our publications over the past 12 months. We’re long essay writers trying to make our way in a TLDR world, so even the most avid follower may well need a map!

It’s also a good opportunity to give thanks where thanks are due.

First, a heartfelt thank you to my partners at Salient for contributing a ton of resources to make Epsilon Theory happen, never once asking me to sell product, and allowing me the leeway to speak my mind with a strong voice that would make a less courageous firm blanch. Epsilon Theory isn’t charity, and it’s the smart move for a firm playing the long game, but no less rare for all that.

Second, an equally heartfelt thank you to the hundreds of thousands of readers who have contributed their most precious resource – their time and attention – to the Epsilon Theory effort. We live in a world that is simultaneously shattered and connected, where we are relentlessly encouraged to mistrust our fellow citizens IRL but to engage with complete strangers on social media. It’s an atomized and polarized existence, which works really well for the Nudging State and the Nudging Oligarchy, less well for everyone else. The lasting impact of Epsilon Theory won’t be in what we publish, but in how we’re able to bring together truth-seekers of all stripes and persuasions, because it’s your engagement with the ideas presented here that will change the world. I know that sounds corny, but it’s happening.

Now on to the 2017 publishing map.

Our big initiative for this year was to publish two coherent sets of long-form notes, one by yours truly and one by my partner Rusty Guinn.

My series of essays is called Notes From the Field. As many long-time readers know, I’m originally from Alabama but now live out in the wilds of Fairfield County, Connecticut, on a “farm” of 44 acres. I put that word in quotations because although we have horses and sheep and goats and chickens and bees, my grandfather – who owned a pre-electrification, pre-refrigeration, pre-pasteurization dairy farm in the 1930s – would surely enjoy a good belly laugh at my calling this a farm. Still, I’ve learned a few things over the years from the farm and its animals, and they’ve helped me to become a better investor.

  1. Notes From the Field: The eponymous note has two essays: “Fingernail Clean”, introducing the concept of the Industrially Necessary Egg – something we take for granted as proper and “natural” when it’s anything but, and “Structure is a Cruel Master”, introducing the genius of both humans and bees – our ability to build complex societies with simple algorithms.
  2. The Goldfinch in Winter: What can a bird teach us about value investing? To everything there is a season.
  3. Horsepower: The horse and horse collar revolutionized European agriculture in the 10th and 11th centuries, a revolution that lives on in words like “horsepower” and changed the course of human civilization. Today we are struggling with a productivity devolution, not revolution, and there is nothing more important for our investments and our politics and our future than understanding its causes and remedies.
  4. The Arborist: We are overrun with Oriental Bittersweet, privet, and kudzu — or as I like to call them, monetary policy, the regulatory state, and fiat news — invasive species that crowd out the small-l liberal virtues of free markets and free elections. What to do about it? Well, that’s citizenship, and I’ve got some ideas.
  5. Always Go To the Funeral: Going to the funeral is part of the personal obligation that we have to others, obligation that doesn’t fit neatly or at all into our bizarro world of crystalized self-interest, where scale and mass distribution are ends in themselves, where the supercilious State knows what’s best for you and your family, where communication policy and fiat news shout down authenticity, where rapacious, know-nothing narcissism is celebrated as leadership even as civility, expertise, and service are mocked as cuckery. Going to the funeral is at the heart of playing the meta-game – the game behind the game – of social systems like markets and elections, and it’s something we all need to understand so that we’re not played for fools.
  6. Sheep Logic: We think we are wolves, living by the logic of the pack. In truth we are sheep, living by the logic of the flock. In both markets and politics, our human intelligences are being trained to be sheep intelligences. Why? Because that’s how you transform capital markets into a political utility, which is just about the greatest gift status quo political institutions can imagine.
  7. Clever Hans: You don’t break a wild horse by crushing its spirit. You nudge it into willingly surrendering its autonomy. Because once you’re trained to welcome the saddle, you’re going to take the bit. We are Clever Hans, dutifully hanging on every word or signal from the Nudging Fed and the Nudging Street as we stomp out our investment behavior.
  8. Pecking Order: The pecking order is a social system designed to preserve economic inequality: inequality of food for chickens, inequality of wealth for humans. We are trained and told by Team Elite that the pecking order is not a real and brutal thing in the human species, but this is a lie. It is an intentional lie, formed by two powerful Narratives: trickle-down monetary policy and massive consumer debt financing.

The Three-Body Problem: What if I told you that the dominant strategies for human investing are, without exception, algorithms and derivatives? I don’t mean computer-driven investing, I mean good old-fashioned human investing … stock-picking and the like. And what if I told you that these algorithms and derivatives might all be broken today?

Rusty’s series of essays, Things that Matter (and Things that Don’t), connects to mine with his just published The Three-Body Portfolio. It’s a wonderful piece on its own (I can’t believe I didn’t think of the Soylent Green reference – Epsilon is people!) and is a great segue to his 2017 serial opus. In chronological order:

  1. With A Man Must Have a Code, Rusty begins the conversation about why we think that all investors ought to have a consistent way of approaching their major investment decisions.
  2. In I am Spartacus, Rusty writes that the passive-active debate doesn’t matter, and that the premise itself is fraudulent.
  3. In What a Good-Looking Question, Rusty writes that trying to pick stocks doesn’t matter, and is largely a waste of time for the majority of investors.
  4. In Break the Wheel, Rusty argues that fund picking doesn’t matter either, and he takes on the cyclical, mean-reverting patterns by which we evaluate fund managers.
  5. In And they Did Live by Watchfires, Rusty highlights how whatever skill we think we have in timing and trading (which is probably none) doesn’t matter anyway.
  6. In Chili P is My Signature, Rusty writes that the typical half-hearted tilts, even to legitimate factors like value and momentum, don’t matter either.
  7. In Whom Fortune Favors (Part 2 here), Rusty writes that quantity of risk matters more than anything else (and that most investors probably aren’t taking enough).
  8. In You Still Have Made a Choice, Rusty writes that maximizing the benefits of diversification matters more than the vast majority of views we may have on one market over another.
  9. In The Myth of Market In-Itself (Part 2 here), Rusty writes that investor behavior matters, and he spends a lot of electrons on the idea that returns are always a reflection of human behavior and emotion.
  10. In Wall Street’s Merry Pranks, Rusty acknowledges that costs matter, but he emphasizes that trading costs, taxes and indirect costs from bad buy/sell behaviors nearly always matter more than the far more frequently maligned advisory and fund management expenses.

But wait, there’s more!

You’ve got two more essays from Rusty:

  1. Before and After the Storm
  2. Gandalf, GZA and Granovetter

You’ve got 10 more essays from me:

  1. Harvey Weinstein and the Common Knowledge Game
  2. Mailbag! Fall 2017 Edition
  3. Mailbag! Midsummer 2017 Edition
  4. Gradually and Then Suddenly
  5. Tell My Horse
  6. Westworld
  7. The Horse in Motion
  8. Mailbag! Life in Trumpland
  9. The Evolution of Competition
  10. Fiat Money, Fiat News

Oh yeah, and you’ve got eleven 2017 podcasts here.

So there’s your 2017 Epsilon Theory map. 2018 will be even better.

Pecking Order

Out of all the animals we keep on our “farm”, chickens are the only ones that bring me no joy. Chickens are, by nature, brutal and cruel. They will torture the weak to death with their pecks, not because they have to, but because they can. It’s the way their brains are hard-wired, and it works for them, as a species. So I pretend that chickens aren’t evil and I’m not complicit. Because I really like the eggs.

We are trained and told that the pecking order is not a real and brutal thing in the human species. This is a lie. It is an intentional lie, one that we pretend isn’t evil and where we are not complicit.

Because we really like the eggs.

And that’s the news from Lake Wobegon, where all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average.

― Garrison Keillor

We can’t all be rich.

We can’t all be famous.

We can’t all be Someone Who Matters to the World.

[Team Elite Narrator: OR CAN WE?]

Blake: Put. That coffee. Down. Coffee’s for closers only. You think I’m f**king with you? I am not f**king with you. I’m here from downtown. I’m here from Mitch and Murray. And I’m here on a mission of mercy. Your name’s Levine? You call yourself a salesman, you son of a bitch?
Moss: I don’t gotta sit here and listen to this s**t.
Blake: You certainly don’t, pal, ’cause the good news is — you’re fired. The bad news is — you’ve got, all of you’ve got just one week to regain your jobs starting with tonight. Starting with tonight’s sit. Oh? Have I got your attention now? Good. ‘Cause we’re adding a little something to this month’s sales contest. As you all know, first prize is a Cadillac Eldorado. Anyone wanna see second prize? Second prize is a set of steak knives. Third prize is you’re fired. Get the picture? You laughing now? You got leads. Mitch and Murray paid good money for their names. You can’t close the leads you’re given, you can’t close s**t. You ARE s**t! Hit the bricks, pal, and beat it ’cause you are going OUT!
Glengarry Glen Ross (1992)

The truth is that unless you are really rich, you work for Mitch & Murray. Yes, that includes you, Vox writer changing the world one smarter-than-thou opinion at a time. Yes, that includes you, tech start-up developer kicking back in your flair-bedecked WeWork cubicle.

We don’t feel the crushing power of the Mitch & Murray pecking order as palpably as the salesmen berated by Alec Baldwin feel it, because the language of David Mamet has been replaced by the language of Dick Thaler and Cass Sunstein. The modern Mitch & Murrays don’t browbeat us. They nudge us. They convince us that a set of steak knives is a darn good outcome, that it’s a promise kept rather than a threat delivered. Coffee’s not just for closers. No, no … coffee is for EVERYONE. In fact, let’s put some caffeine into everything you drink. Something nice and caffeinated to wash down that big slice of office birthday cake.

Most importantly, today’s Mitch & Murray writ large — the system of Mitch & Murrays — provides credit to the non-rich, essentially limitless credit for anything that’s intangible or depreciates quickly, anything that lets the non-rich FEEL rich. How about a nice dinner out? New smartphone? You deserve it! How about a couple of years of graduate school? More than a couple of years, shooting for a tenure track position? [Heh, heh] I mean … why certainly, even better!

Go on, try the eggs. They’re delicious.

And higher stock prices will boost consumer wealth and help increase confidence, which can also spur spending. Increased spending will lead to higher incomes and profits that, in a virtuous circle, will further support economic expansion.

― Ben Bernanke (2010)

Step One in the Pecking Order Lie is to promote a narrative of trickle-down economics — that making the rich even richer is a good thing for the non-rich.

This is exactly what Ben Bernanke is saying here, that the Fed’s extraordinary efforts to prop up the stock market aren’t just good for the rich, but will be good for everyone once the “wealth effect” kicks in and the rich start spending their money.

Whenever someone uses the phrase “wealth effect”, they are promoting a trickle-down narrative.  

How does trickle-down monetary policy work? By spending TRILLIONS of dollars to buy financial assets, the world’s central banks have inflated the prices of ALL financial assets, EVERYWHERE in the world.

This is not a secret plan. This is not a hidden agenda. This is the avowed purpose of what central bankers call Large Scale Asset Purchases (LSAPs). The goal is to force us to “reach for yield”. The goal is to force us to buy more and more risky assets (stocks) at higher and higher prices. The Fed is trying to make the stock market go up. And they’re succeeding.

Here’s a great chart from TCW showing how this works. The orange line is the growth rate of the US economy. The blue line is the growth rate of how rich we are. By tripling the stock market, the Fed has made us much richer than our economy has grown … SOOO much richer than our economy has grown.

But the goodies of a trebled stock market aren’t evenly distributed. Who owns stocks? If we’re talking about households, leaving aside pension funds and endowments and other institutional investors, it’s the rich, mostly. And that household share of the Central Bankers’ Bubble doesn’t increase linearly with wealth, but exponentially, meaning that the really rich own a lot more stocks than the merely rich, so the really rich have gotten a lot richer than the merely rich.

Here’s a chart from Deutsche Bank showing the impact (it’s a year old, so the effect is even more pronounced today with the stock market 20% higher). Thirty years ago, the non-rich (the bottom 90% of American households by income) owned 35% of American household wealth. Today they own about 22%. Forty years ago, the really rich (the top 1/10th of 1% of American households by income) owned about 7% of American household wealth. Today they, too, own about 22%. Moreover, the gains of the really rich have mirrored the losses of the non-rich, which means that the well-off and merely rich (the remaining 9.9% of American households) haven’t seen much of a change one way or another.

Now this shift in relative wealth of the non-rich and the really rich didn’t start with the Central Bankers’ Bubble and its narrative of trickle-down wealth effects from monetary policy. It started roughly in 1980 with the Reagan narrative of trickle-down wealth effects from fiscal policy. And before we make overly facile comparisons with the 1920s and 1930s, this chart isn’t taking into account pensions and social security and other safety net features of the modern semi-sorta-welfare state. So I don’t know how historically abnormal today’s level of significant wealth inequality might be, whether it’s Louis XVI level inequality or simply robber baron level inequality.

But I know that it IS.

I know that inequality is growing. I know that the pecking order has been getting stronger for a couple of decades now, and that it’s been driven by the Central Bankers’ Bubble over the past decade. I suspect that this is probably a good thing for global egg production. I also suspect that this is a bad thing if you care about liberty and justice for all.

The narrative around trickle-down fiscal policy has become highly politicized, as the good Democrat soldiers at the usual Team Elite bastions never tire of telling us how those Republican tax policies will increase wealth inequality. And they’re right.

But these same tireless foes of trickle-down fiscal policy trip over themselves praising and promoting the narrative of trickle-down monetary policy under Bernanke and Yellen, which has been FAR more effective at delivering windfall gains to the really rich than Ronald Reagan or Paul Ryan could ever dream of achieving through tax “reform”.

Lenin called communist sympathizers in the West “useful idiots”. The Nudging State and the Nudging Oligarchy have their own willing crew of stooges, drawn primarily from children of privilege (well off or merely rich, not really rich) who want to “make a difference”, who want to be Someone Who Matters to the World.

[Team Elite Narrator: But you DESERVE to be Someone Who Matters to the World, my young friend. You’re good enough, you’re smart enough, and doggone it, people like you. Why, here as a WaPo staffer you’ll be making the world a more succulent host for Jeff Bezos better place for all!]

The picture on the left is Jeff Bezos, age 40, worth a billion dollars or so. The picture on the right is Jeff Bezos, age 52, worth 100 billion dollars or so. HGH looks good on you, Jeff.

I think that at some point in the next decade, it’s inevitable that oligarchs like Bezos will gain access to life extension technologies unavailable to ordinary mortals. At that point, the pecking order will take on an entirely new dimension. At that point, we have a war. Which the non-rich will lose.

You’ll be pleased to know that Janet Yellen, with a reported net worth of about $15 million, is “greatly concerned” about growing inequality, but regrets that the Fed has no purview on this terrible problem. Perhaps Congress should do something, she suggests, like “making college more affordable” — by which she means extending even more debt financing — or “supporting early childhood education” — by which she means publicly funded daycare so that both parents can work in support of the Nudging State and the Nudging Oligarchy.

This is Step Two of the Pecking Order Lie — the provision of massive debt financing to the non-rich, preferably for non-appreciating experiences like going to college or quickly depreciating things like cars and smartphones.

Why? So that the non-rich will FEEL RICH even as they BECOME POORER.

Student debt (and every other form of consumer debt) is the functional equivalent of an office birthday cake. Debt provision and a pleasant narrative to go with it is a highly cost-effective behavioral tool for maintaining worker morale in the face of objectively deteriorating labor conditions.


Milton:   The ratio of people to cake is too big!
 Office Space (1999)

Unless, like Milton, you don’t get your slice of cake. Then you burn the office down. Or vote for Trump. Same thing.


It is a sin to believe evil of others, but it is seldom a mistake.

― Garrison Keillor

The pecking order is real. It is beautifully masked in modern human society, but no less brutal and no less cruel than in the chicken coop.

How do you escape the pecking order? How do you quit Mitch & Murray? Well, you can make a lot of money. That’s the tried and true method. Enough money to build a walled garden around you and yours, expanding it as you can to take in others. F-you money. Somewhere between merely rich and really rich should do the trick, depending on how many generations you want to protect within those walls. Unfortunately, that’s a big gulf these days, that distance between merely rich and really rich, and it’s getting wider every day.

But there’s another way.

No matter how much money we have or don’t have, we can reject the idea that we can be Someone Who Matters to the World and instead embrace the idea that we must be Someone Who Matters to the Pack. Now maybe your pack IS the world. Probably not, but maybe. If it is, then be bold and matter to the world. But more likely it’s your family. More likely it’s your friends. More likely it’s your partners and employees. More likely it’s your church. More likely it’s your school. More likely it’s your country. It’s damn sure not your political party. It’s damn sure not an oligarch.

Why should we reject this notion of being Someone Who Matters to the World? Because that’s the shiny lure that the Nudging State and the Nudging Oligarchy dangle in front of bright young things. And bright not-so-young people, too. The shiny lure of mattering is how they set the hook — which is debt — and that’s how they reel you in. Because once you’ve got that hook in your mouth … once you’re up to your eyeballs in debt … it’s soooo hard to ever get free. I know of which I speak. So do a lot of people reading this note, I bet.

The simple truth is that we can’t escape the pecking order. We can’t escape economic inequality and the hard-wired impulses to brutality and cruelty used to support inequality. Not for long, anyway. Walled gardens never last.

But we can do better. We can reject the lies used to justify inequality even as we accept the reality of inequality. We can be IN the pecking order world without being OF the pecking order world.

There is an autonomy inherent in rejecting the lure of the Nudging State and the Nudging Oligarchy, an autonomy that can power a life well lived. It doesn’t mean rejecting the world as it is. It doesn’t mean leaving the grid for Alaska homesteading. No, that’s a prison of quite another sort. It doesn’t mean mattering to nothing. It means mattering to other humans who see YOU as an autonomous end-in-itself and not as a means to an end. THAT’S your pack. Make a difference for THEM.

In January 1941, eleven months before Pearl Harbor brought the United States into World War II, Franklin Roosevelt gave his Four Freedoms speech — Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Worship, Freedom from Want, Freedom from Fear — memorialized over the next few years by Norman Rockwell in these famous paintings.

What is autonomy? It’s freedom.

What freedoms? These.

If you get nothing else from Epsilon Theory, get this: these freedoms are not granted to us by the State or the Oligarchs. They are not theirs to give. They are not rewards for good behavior or allocations from a central pot. They are ours. They have always been ours. They cannot be taken away.

But we can give them away. We can sell our birthright for a mess of pottage in the form of student debt and a tasty slice of office birthday cake. We can allow ourselves to be beguiled by the glamour of mattering for a Mighty Cause, giving away our allegiance to those who would use us as fodder or feed. We can embrace the pecking order lie and exchange our True Freedoms for Hollow Freedoms, for a freedom of socially acceptable speech and a freedom of socially acceptable worship and a freedom from socially manufactured wants and a freedom from socially manufactured fears.

We can’t escape from a world dominated by the Hollow Freedoms any more than we can escape from a market dominated by Hollow Liquidity and Hollow Volatility. But in markets and in politics we can call things by their proper names. We can maintain our autonomy of mind. We can find our pack and matter to them. We can recognize that a politics without shame is a politics without honor, just as a market without risk is a market without reward. We can take a loss in the short term, knowing that we’re playing the long game. We can do this handshake by handshake, investment by investment, candidate by candidate, good deed by good deed.

And watch how our world starts to change. Watch how we Make America Good Again.

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The Evolution of Competition

Death inspires me
Like a dog inspires a rabbit.
― Twenty One Pilots, “Heavydirtysoul” (2017)

Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.
― Sigmund Freud, who probably never actually said this (but should have)

Over the past few weeks, I’ve had a fight with my wife, spoiling an otherwise wonderful night out, and email spats with two of my best and oldest friends. It was about Trump, of course. Not directly, but always on some silly tangential issue like “Should Sally Yates have resigned instead of countermanded an executive order on the basis of her personal beliefs?” or, better yet, “Is Lady Gaga authentic?” In each case, I didn’t recognize that we weren’t really talking about what I thought we were talking about, and by the time I did recognize the real issues, I was already too far down the path of combative Ben (think Bruce Banner but without the green skin) to care. Not my finest moments.

I suspect a lot of Epsilon Theory readers have had similar individual experiences of late. Certainly it seems that our collective experience as a nation and political society is breaking down this way.

What I want to write about today is not the specifics of this policy or that policy. It’s not to make an argument of any sort. It’s to write about argumentation itself, and the way in which the GAME of our politics and our society has shifted. Yeah, I know this is all very meta and has zero direct impact on your investing or portfolio decisions. But it’s actually the only thing that I think really matters for our social lives, including our lives as citizens and as investors, because it’s only by recognizing the game that we’re playing that we can survive it. Together. Maybe.

The most widely read Epsilon Theory note ever was “Virtue Signaling: Or Why Clinton is in Trouble”, published last September, where I wrote about why I thought Hillary could lose the election. The argument was that this was a turn-out election for a handful of swing states, and Democrats were all too keen to proclaim their political virtue by being anti-Trump in easy places like the Huffington Post or California metro advertising markets, where lots of like-minded Democrats would see them, rather than to barnstorm FOR Clinton in places where unlike-minded Democrats would see them, like Pennsylvania or Michigan or Wisconsin. Hubris, thy name is Debbie Wasserman Schultz and the rest of the DNC cartel.

But here’s what I wrote about Trump in that note:

Trump, on the other hand … I think he breaks us. Maybe he already has. He breaks us because he transforms every game we play as a country — from our domestic social games to our international security games — from a Coordination Game to a Competition Game.

Blowing up our international trade and security games with Europe, Japan, and China for the sheer hell of it, turning them into full-blown Competition Games … that’s really stupid. But we have a nasty recession and maybe a nasty war. Maybe it would have happened anyway. We get over it. Blowing up our American political game with citizens, institutions, and identities for the sheer hell of it, turning it into a full-blown Competition Game … that’s a historic tragedy. We don’t get over that.

Geez. Like anyone else with a public persona, I loooove being right. But I didn’t expect to be this right, this quickly. The election of Trump IS breaking us, and not because of the specifics of his policies or whether they’re right or wrong or anything like that. It’s breaking us because of the nature of repeated-play competitive games and the shifting meaning of cooperation.

That first bit — the nature of repeated-play competitive games — is a mouthful. All it really means, though, is that our real-life social interactions, whether in politics or markets or everyday life with our family and friends, are never a single, solitary game. We play the same core game over and over and over, each single interaction setting the stage for the next, and what we really should be concerned about is the overall pattern of the entire set of interactions. That’s real life, as opposed to some 2×2 matrix of Cooperate/Defect like you’d see in a game theory textbook.

And famously, repeated plays can help improve competitive games that otherwise end up in a sad equilibrium, like the Prisoner’s Dilemma. A political scientist named Robert Axelrod (not to be confused with David Axelrod of Obama campaign and CNN fame … this is a different guy) wrote a really influential book back in 1984 called The Evolution of Cooperation, where he showed that a cooperative but non-patsy player (i.e., willing to cooperate first and reluctantly forgive an opponent’s occasional defection) would, over time, find enough similarly “nice” players to create an ecosystem of cooperators and dominate, over time, those not-so-nice players who were looking to WIN BIGLY in every single interaction. Axelrod’s book was one of the most popular political science books of the past 40 years, and it spawned a cottage industry of academics looking to expand this insight in theory and practice. It’s a powerful idea because it’s a hopeful idea for nice people. If only us nice people can signal each other and band together, why golly, this proves that there’s nothing we can’t overcome together in this mean old world.

Unfortunately, the evolution of cooperation through adopting “nice” strategies is not a particularly robust finding. Or rather, it’s robust, but only in a particular subset of competitive games and only if the players agree on the meaning of cooperation. For example, if you’re playing a game of Chicken over and over again rather than a game of Prisoner’s Dilemma over and over again, being nice and forgiving doesn’t work very well. At all. Google “Sudetenland 1938” if you don’t believe me. In fact, the entire concept of repeated-play doesn’t fit neatly with the competitive game of Chicken, which is a problem because it’s the dominant competitive game form in the modern world, both internationally and domestically. It wasn’t always this way, particularly in our domestic politics. But it sure is now.

The fundamental reason that a repeated-play cooperative strategy doesn’t work in a game of Chicken is that the meaning of cooperation is different in this class of games. You see it in the title of the game itself. If you cooperate in a game of Chicken — i.e., you’re driving your tractor straight on at Kevin Bacon’s pick-up truck and you veer off from the looming crash, or you and James Dean are racing towards a cliff and you put on your brakes first — you are the LOSER. You are the COWARD. That becomes your identity and your reputation, which means that others will now treat you like a loser and a coward in the games that they play with you in the future. Compare that to the meaning of cooperation in a game of Prisoner’s Dilemma, where cooperation — i.e., you refuse to rat out your partner and cut a deal for yourself at his expense — means that you are STRONG and LOYAL. The words and the examples used to illustrate bloodless, mathematical game theoretic matrices are not accidental! If we believe that our identity is at risk in a repeated-play competitive game, we behave very differently than if it’s not. More to the point, we should behave differently if our identity is at stake. It’s the rational thing to do. If Trump inspires you like a dog inspires a rabbit, then you should never cooperate if it’s a game of Chicken with his tribe and you should always cooperate if it’s a Prisoner’s Dilemma game with your tribe. Maybe you’ll crash the car in this particular game of Chicken and maybe your partner will rat you out in this particular game of Prisoner’s Dilemma. But your identity and reputation will be strengthened, not damaged, for the next game you play with the other tribe or within your own tribe. And there’s always another game.

Okay, Ben, fair enough. We don’t want to be cowards but we still want to think of ourselves as nice. For the big identity-is-at-stake games, we should play nice strategies within our own mob and play mean strategies with the other guys. Got it. But how do we avoid crashing the car in our everyday lives? How do we avoid talking past or yelling at our friends, family, and fellow citizens with whom we share so much common ground on the really big ideas of what it means to be Americans or, more fundamentally still, a good human being?

Well … first off I’m going to suggest that we should all prepare for impact. The evolution of competition and the success of “mean” strategies in games like Chicken is at least as robust as the evolution of cooperation and the success of “nice” strategies in games like Prisoner’s Dilemma. Once you introduce, say, mustard gas into the trench warfare game, it doesn’t just un-introduce itself on its own. These bells are really hard to un-ring, and it typically takes a lot of car crashes on both sides before you get a peace treaty and a chance to rebuild a cooperative game structure. That’s at least four mixed metaphors, but you get what I mean. And unfortunately, all of these metaphors apply just as aptly to a social structure of family and friends as to a social structure of a political party or an entire nation. The evolution of competition is a powerfully contagious virus, and it hops easily from a big tribe like a nation to a small tribe like a family.

But I do have two suggestions to limit the damage that the evolution of competition inevitably spews in its wake.

First, whatever competitive social interaction we’re having, at whatever level we’re having it, the most important thing in that interaction is to figure out the meaning of cooperation for yourself and whoever you’re dealing with. Otherwise you’re going to find yourself playing a different game from the other person, and that never ends well. This is a tough piece of advice to follow (myself included!) because we assume that whatever our “identity weighting” might be for a given issue, the person or group we’re interacting with attaches that same meaning. So, for example, if you voted for Clinton as an affirmation of a personal identity that rejects the racism and sexism you see in Trump, your natural assumption is going to be that anyone who voted for Trump similarly did so as an affirmation of a personal identity, but one that accepts racism and sexism. Or vice versa. Or whatever. We’ve all seen a dozen variations of this theme over the past eight weeks, and we’ve all (yes, every single one of us) engaged in it, as well. This sort of projection is an innate behavioral bias of the human animal. I get it. But it is also entirely wrong-headed when it comes to complex and over-determined social behaviors like voting. Or buying a stock. Believe it or not (and many people reading this note won’t), behaviors like voting or purchasing or speaking or tweeting are not necessarily markers of personal identity. Maybe they are, and when they are they MUST be respected if you care about having a peaceful social interaction. But maybe they aren’t. And that must be respected, too.

Second, it’s crucial to recognize that not all political arguments or competitive games are really existential in nature or fraught with questions of identity. Not every tweet is a constitutional crisis. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. This is also a tough piece of advice to follow (also myself included!) because the ringleaders of the various Team Elite cabals, whether it’s the Trump Plutocrats or the Davos Globalists or the Central Bank Mandarins or the NeoCon Spymasters or whoever, are working diligently day in and day out to convince you that it is. That every action or statement by the other ringleaders is an OUTRAGE. That this is how Hitler got started or how liberty is lost.

Of course, the really scary thing is that this IS how Hitler got started and it IS how liberty is lost, it’s just not clear to me which of our contending factions or geographies is supplying the 21st century version. History rhymes roughly; it doesn’t repeat neatly.

Meanwhile the barrage of fiat news and alternative facts continues from all sides unabated. We are caught in the crossfire of the “mean” strategies implemented by the various factions as they quite rationally engage in a massive repeated-play game of Chicken, where winning means mobilizing the hearts and minds of the cannon fodder. And by cannon fodder I mean us.

It’s the oldest saying in poker, and one I can’t repeat often enough. If you’ve been playing poker for 30 minutes and you don’t know who the sucker is … it’s you. We are — all of us, without exception — being played. That doesn’t mean we stop playing the game, whether it’s the game of markets or the game of citizenship. It means, though, that we resolve not to be the sucker. That we turn a clear eye to the stories that others tell us and the stories that we tell ourselves. That we demand to be treated as the rightful, autonomous owners of our identities, and we extend that right to others.

Know thyself.

Treat others as you would have them treat you.  

Pretty good advice 2,000 years ago in some pretty hard times. Pretty good advice today.

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