Epsilon Theory PDF Download (available to everyone): We the People? We the Pack.
Back in early April, I wrote this about our battle with the coronavirus:
There is no country in the world that mobilizes for war more effectively than the United States. And I know you won’t believe me, but I tell you it is true:
This will be #OurFinestHour.
Since then, our leaders have totally botched the Covid-19 war-fighting effort. I mean our leaders at every level of government and of every political stripe, and I mean that it has been spectacularly botched. Covid-19 is now endemic within the United States, meaning that it is neither effectively contained nor effectively mitigated. Meaning that it is uncontrolled and uncontrollable. Meaning that tens of thousands of Americans get sick with this disease every day, and between 500 and 1,000 Americans die. Every day.
It didn’t have to be this way. As I write this note, Germany – a large country with a federal political system and the 4th largest economy in the world – is reporting two Covid-19 deaths today. Two. Japan – an even larger country and even larger economy – is reporting one Covid-19 death today. One.
But here’s the thing. Yes, our political leaders have been a horror show. God knows I’ve been railing about them for months. But there’s another awful truth at work here.
We the people have failed our nation more than the politicians.
In fact, I honestly don’t believe we still have a nation. We have a country, of course, but that’s just an administrative thing … here are the borders, here is your social security number, here are the rules for how we do things. A nation is both less than a country and much, much more. A nation is the meaning of a country. A nation is the embodiment of We the People.
It’s not that I think being an American has no meaning. It has a lot of meaning to me. It has a lot of meaning to many people. It has some meaning to almost everyone.
It’s that being an American no longer has a shared meaning.
It’s the widening gyre that we’ve been writing about for years now. Literally for years.
I just never thought it would come to this.
I knew that high-functioning sociopath politicians would continue to do their high-functioning sociopath thing, where with one hand they pump out culture-porn telling us that what really matters is our attitude towards Goya beans or Columbus statues, and with the other hand they pump out TRILLIONS of dollars into a money-laundering scheme we like to call “monetary policy”.
All while MILLIONS of Americans are getting sick and MILLIONS of Americans are out of a job and TENS OF THOUSANDS of Americans are dead.
I just never thought we would embrace this evil – and that’s what it is – in our heart of hearts.
I just never thought that we would reject empathy for our fellow citizens in favor of sociopathy, that we would think of our fellow citizens as mattering less in a horrific economic and public health emergency because they live in a different part of the country or have a different political affiliation.
Not all of us. But a lot of us. A critical mass of us. Enough of us so that the rest of us disengage from cooperative gameplay on a national scale, not out of emotion or spite, but out of cold, hard rational choice. It’s the inevitable outcome of our domestic social games transformed from Coordination Games into Competition Games.
From Virtue Signaling, or … Why Clinton is in Trouble:
The hallmark of a Coordination Game is that there are two equilibrium outcomes possible, two balancing points where the game is stable. Yes, one of those stable outcomes is mutual defection, where everyone pursues their individual goals and everyone is worse off. But a stable outcome of mutual cooperation is at least possible in a Coordination Game, and that’s worth a lot. Here’s a graphical representation of a Coordination Game, using Rousseau’s famous example of “the stag hunt”.
Fig. 1 Coordination Game (Stag Hunt)
The basic idea here is that each player can choose to either cooperate (hunt together for a stag, in Rousseau’s example) or defect (hunt independently for a rabbit, in Rousseau’s example), but neither player knows what the other player is going to choose. If you defect, you’re guaranteed to bag a rabbit (so, for example, if the Row Player chooses Defect, he gets 1 point regardless of Column Player’s choice), but if you cooperate, you get a big deer if the other player also cooperates (worth 2 points to both players) and nothing if the other player defects. There are two Nash equilibria for the Coordination Game, marked by the blue ovals in the figure above. A Nash equilibrium is a stable equilibrium because once both players get to that outcome, neither player has any incentive to change his strategy. If both players are defecting, both will get rabbits (bottom right quadrant), and neither player will change to a Cooperate strategy. But if both players are cooperating, both will share a stag (top left quadrant), and neither player will change to a Defect strategy, as you’d be worse off by only getting a rabbit instead of sharing a stag (the other player would be even more worse off if you switched to Defect, but you don’t care about that).
The point of the Coordination Game is that mutual cooperation is a stable outcome based solely on self-interest, so long as the payoffs from defecting are always less than the payoff of mutual cooperation. If that happens, however, you get a game like this:
Fig. 2 Competition Game (Prisoner’s Dilemma)
Here, the payoff from defecting while everyone else continues to cooperate is no longer a mere 1 point rabbit, but is a truly extraordinary payoff where you get the “free rider” benefits of everyone else’s deer hunting AND you go out to get a rabbit on your own. This extraordinary payoff is what Trump is saying is possible when he talks about America “winning” again. But it’s not possible. Not for more than a nanosecond, at least, because there’s no equilibrium there, no stability in either the upper right or bottom left quadrant. You want to pass a modern version of the 1930 Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act to “win” a trade deal? Knock yourself out. As in 1930, you’ll enjoy those benefits for about two months before every other country does the same thing against you. And in about 12 months, as in 1931, every bank that’s levered to global trade finance goes bust. Whee! There’s one and only one equilibrium in a competition game — the “everyone defect” outcome of the bottom right quadrant — meaning that once you get to this point (and you will) you can’t get out. The stability of the Competition Game is the stability of permanent conflict.
More importantly than what happens in any of these international games, however, is what happens in our domestic games. 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.
But that’s exactly what’s happening. I look at Charlotte. I look at Dallas. I look at Milwaukee. And I no longer recognize us.
I wrote this four years ago. I no longer recognized us in 2016. Today in 2020 under the stress of a plague? It’s done. There’s no shared or coordinated position on what it means to be an American. Our domestic political lives are in the stable equilibrium of a Competition Game. There’s no reversion here. There’s no pendulum to swing back the other way.
The United States as a powerful country can easily last another 500 years.
America as a nation, though, as a common knowledge construct of what it means to be a citizen of the United States … RIP.
There’s little to be gained by asking who or what’s to blame for the end of America as a nation. As with any big event, it’s terribly overdetermined, which is a ten-dollar word that means shit happens. My personal view is that Trump is much more than a catalyst but something less than a determining event, more like the introduction of trench warfare and mustard gas in World War I than the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand. Well-meaning people may disagree. Don’t @ me on this, please, because we don’t have time for this conversation.
We don’t have time to look behind because everything is at stake in looking forward.
There’s everything to be gained by asking how we move our country out of this Competition Game and back into a Coordination Game where a shared sense of national identity is at least possible.
There’s everything to be gained by asking how an America of shared meaning – a nation of liberty and justice for all – can be reborn within the country of the United States.
And everything to be lost if we don’t. Because I promise you the Nudging Oligarchs and Nudging Statists are hard at work developing their version of a new operating system for this American reboot.
I still believe this will be our finest hour.
Not of the America that was. But of the America that can be.
What is the question that matters? It’s the only question that ever matters as you experience an existential crisis.
It’s the question Butch asks Marsellus in Pulp Fiction.
Let me tell you what now.
Now we help our American brothers and sisters survive both the greatest public health crisis of our lives AND the greatest economic dislocation of our lives. Even those brothers and sisters who would never do the same for us. Even those brothers and sisters who are out of their freakin’ minds in the culture-porn simulated world of MAGA-this and SJW-that.
You’ve heard of the expression that there are no atheists in a foxhole? Well, guess what … there are no Democrats and no Republicans in a foxhole, either. There are no New Yorkers and no Texans, no race and no class. There is only us – human beings who are in the fight of our lives, who want to do the right thing for ourselves and our families, who used to share more than just a border and a history with the other human beings in this American foxhole. And can once again.
Now we reject the New Story of sociopathy and division. Now we sing the Old Story of empathy and shared sacrifice.
Now we reject the logic of the flock. Now we embrace the logic of the pack. Now we turn the other cheek. Not because it’s the kind move or the sweet move. But because it’s the smart move.
Now we make. Now we protect. Now we teach.
From the bottom-up.
With the strength of the pack.
Now this is the law of the jungle, as old and as true as the sky,
And the wolf that shall keep it may prosper, but the wolf that shall break it must die.
As the creeper that girdles the tree trunk, the law runneth forward and back;
For the strength of the pack is the wolf, and the strength of the wolf is the pack.
That’s from a poem by Rudyard Kipling. I know he’s been canceled, but I don’t care. I think he’s great.
What does acting from the bottom-up with the strength of the pack mean?
For me it means shouting from the Epsilon Theory megaphone – a megaphone powered by my pack – that we are being lied to about Covid-19 and betrayed by our political leaders.
See, I’m not a lockdown guy. At all. I believe that we’re all smart enough to make up our own minds about the risks that Covid-19 poses for ourselves and our families, commensurate with our own personal conception of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness AND our absolute obligation to respect those same rights in others.
I also believe that our government has intentionally obscured and misrepresented crucial information about Covid-19 that is necessary for an informed, personal risk-taking decision.
I also believe that that our government has abdicated and abused its irreplaceable role in providing resources and coordination to resolve inevitable conflicts of individual rights.
For me it also means distributing N95 and KN95 masks – a distribution powered by my pack – to thousands of individual healthcare workers and first responders in urgent need of PPE.
To date we’ve purchased and distributed about 110,000 N95 and KN95 masks to more than 1,000 individual hospitals, clinics, fire depts, police depts, prisons and shelters across 46 states. We send these masks in packages of 50 to 200 directly to doctors, nurses, EMTs, officers and social workers in urgent need, who then distribute them to their teams.
We don’t compete with federal or state authorities in their big bulk orders of PPE. But we’re also not waiting on these federal or state authorities to trickle those bulk orders down to the frontlines. Because somehow they never do.
If you are a healthcare worker or first responder in urgent need of PPE (or if you know someone who is!) fill out the online form here – Getting PPE to Healthcare Workers and First Responders – and we will do what we can to help!
Please understand that our efforts really are for those in urgent need. Please don’t game the system. Please don’t approach this with a “hey, can I get some free masks?” attitude. Yes, this happens. No, this doesn’t work.
So let me tell you a story about my pack and these masks. You may notice that I’m no longer publishing a website address where you can go and donate money to this cause. The website is still up – www.FrontlineHeroesUSA.org – but there’s no donation link. You know why? Because the pack was so generous in their donations that we’ve got all the money we need right now.
One day we may need to raise more money. That will be a sad day, because it will mean that this plague is still with us long after it should be eradicated and long after this charity should have been wound down. But if that day ever comes, the pack will hear the call and the pack will answer.
The pack always answers the call.
What does acting from the bottom-up with the strength of the pack mean to you?
I don’t know. But you do.
You know what you can do. You know the needs of your community. You know who your pack is. And if you don’t … well, maybe you should put some thought into that. The culture-porn can wait. Twitter and Facebook and all that, it’ll still be there when you get back.
I’ll tell you this, though. Every school in this country is going to need a lot of help over the next few weeks and months. This isn’t a statement about reopening or not. This isn’t a statement about the politics of reopening or the benefits of reopening or the dangers of reopening or the wisdom of reopening or the idiocy of reopening. This is a statement about need.
Whatever your views are on school reopening … however angry you get with the parents and politicians who are on the other side of this issue … you could do worse than to organize your pack and figure out how to help the human beings in your community – parents, students and teachers alike – who are going to have a hard time with the schools this fall under any circumstances. Maybe you’ll figure out a way to help with the economic risks they will face. Maybe you’ll figure out a way to help with the health risks they will face.
But I bet you’ll find a way to help.
Once you start to see the parents, students and teachers in your community as something more than abstract placeholders for the political arguments they (or you!) may be immersed in … once you start to see them as fellow Americans stuck in this foxhole with you … everything changes.
And that change is even more contagious than the virus.
We’re going to change the world, you know … you and me.
PS. If you’re interested in joining the Epsilon Theory pack, we’d love to have you.
Epsilon Theory PDF Download (available to everyone): We the People? We the Pack.
Thank you Ben and Rusty
I’ve spent the last few months wondering where shared sacrifice has gone in America. The same country that sacrificed sons and daughters in the American Revolution, the Civil War, and both World Wars in the name of liberty, unity, and standing for what’s right. The same country that gave up meat and steel and rubber in support of the war effort. The same country that wore “I heart NY” and NYPD/FDNY gear coast-to-coast after 9/11. Yes, there are dark sides of varying degrees to all of these examples, but broadly, Americans have been willing to put aside individual interests for the benefit of One Nation.
And now, we can’t wear masks to the grocery store to potentially protect the vulnerable? We can’t leave a few packs of freaking toilet paper on the shelf for another family? We can’t manage to stay a few feet away from people if we want to have a beer on a patio?
Thank you for your perspective, gentlemen. It is refreshing, and sadly necessary in our current world. Your work is inspiring your Pack to make a difference in their families, communities, and whatever else is important to them. Until we again become One Nation, it’s the best we can do.
long on “Rights”
short on “Responsibilities”
Yeah, the pack is one of the most ancient survival skills. Not survival of the pack but survival of, at least, one individual.
I appreciate the conception and layout of the Cooperation Game and Competition Game. They are really useful for understanding decision making of an individual human in a social group, of humans. Also, therein lies that sweet seductive feint, that switch of reality for … what? … hope?
My experience with wolf packs points to a much starker and darker endpoint. When one or some of the wolves in the pack make a mistake, like not following the cooperation rules, they all die. Most often the whole pack just dies.
No 500 years in a different form. Just dead. And gone. Forever.
We have a precious gift. Let’s keep it alive.
Yesterday a second friend of mine lost their mother to COVID-19 (which is especially painful as it brings back all the feelings of losing my own mother in January – though not due to COVID). I am beside myself-level FURIOUS that people are not taking this seriously. I dearly hope you are right that this will be our finest hour, Ben.
I joined The Pack just now (it was long overdue), specifically for two reasons:
Kudos on this article, Ben! I’ll do the best I can to signal boost it on Twitter (my only meager audience at the moment), and everything referenced therein when I come across them as well.
I share your anger, Tanya. It’s a cold fury.
I have long been of the belief that the seminal moment of the past generation was in the weeks after 9/11. We as a nation were in the right mood for a transformational, massive national volunteer (and military) mobilization. And yet the word from the White House was that the best thing we as citizens could do was to just “go shopping.”
I wondered if we were missing a tremendous opportunity then, and as each year since has passed I have felt like it was an even more important moment than I had imagined at the time.
Thank you! Great to have you in the Pack!
I feel for them. Yesterday I was at the funeral of a friend who died from Covid. SO MANY people were mask less at the service. The new gig is people who “wear” masks but leave their nose uncovered. Hell, I saw a guy with his on the bill of his baseball cap at a store today, Maybe it’s self-selection for draining the gene pool but the people who get it it take up room at the hospital and ICU. I bet LOTS of them are exercising their “freedom” not to buy health insurance, which should be tattooed on their foreheads. They can sit in the cellar while people who have insurance and took precautions are tended to first. This may be anti-pack, but even the pack turns on members sometimes, hence “lone wolves.” We have too many people who want to rebel against the pack maybe because it benefits others, like one of the games above, or think they’re too clever by half and reject the pack. Or they rebel against nature by nurture and want to MTPGA © (Make The Pack Great Again) seeing other win as their loss. Hell with 'em
My understanding of Nash would build on this notion of Nation vs. Country. The prisoner’s dilemma is what you get when there is no shared understanding of the benefits of co-operation. If you don’t trust the instincts of the other side, you will defect every time. It doesn’t matter the payoff for co-operating, because you can’t get those benefits by acting alone. Just because coordination is the maximizing equilibrium for both parties is irrelevant. It still will not be everyone’s best response (part of the definition of a Nash Equilibrium), unless it is rational to expect co-operation.
That is the where the idea of a Nation comes in. If and only if you can assume that the wider pack (the country) has your back on some basic rights, then you can move to co-operation (self-interest manifest through cooperation). Without that shared assumption, everyone falls back on defection (self-interest manifest through competition). Fortunately, when you can play the game again and again, the players will presumably realize at some point that coordination is better for everyone. To borrow a sentiment from MLK (the Other America), I believe that must use our time wisely to promote cooperation as a precondition of justice. Otherwise, other missionaries will promote a form of brutalism - mine, not yours.
Yours in service to the pack from post-ISIL Iraq.
“But the one great shocking occasion, when tens or hundreds or thousands will join with you, never comes. That’s the difficulty. If the last and worst act of the whole regime had come immediately after the first and smallest, thousands, yes, millions would have been sufficiently shocked—if, let us say, the gassing of the Jews in ’43 had come immediately after the ‘German Firm’ stickers on the windows of non-Jewish shops in ’33. But of course this isn’t the way it happens. In between come all the hundreds of little steps, some of them imperceptible, each of them preparing you not to be shocked by the next. Step C is not so much worse than Step B, and, if you did not make a stand at Step B, why should you at Step C? And so on to Step D.
And one day, too late, your principles, if you were ever sensible of them, all rush in upon you. The burden of self-deception has grown too heavy, and some minor incident, in my case my little boy, hardly more than a baby, saying ‘Jewish swine,’ collapses it all at once, and you see that everything, everything, has changed and changed completely under your nose. The world you live in—your nation, your people—is not the world you were born in at all. The forms are all there, all untouched, all reassuring, the houses, the shops, the jobs, the mealtimes, the visits, the concerts, the cinema, the holidays. But the spirit, which you never noticed because you made the lifelong mistake of identifying it with the forms, is changed. Now you live in a world of hate and fear, and the people who hate and fear do not even know it themselves; when everyone is transformed, no one is transformed. Now you live in a system which rules without responsibility even to God. The system itself could not have intended this in the beginning, but in order to sustain itself it was compelled to go all the way.”
― Milton Sanford Mayer, They Thought They Were Free
I think that bit about the forms staying intact but the spirit imperceptibly changing is the heart of what the pack is being formed to fight back against.
“There’s everything to be gained by asking how an America of shared meaning – a nation of liberty and justice for all – can be reborn within the country of the United States.
And everything to be lost if we don’t. Because I promise you the Nudging Oligarchs and Nudging Statists are hard at work developing their version of a new operating system for this American reboot.”
Ben, I keep re-reading the article and coming back to these 2 paragraphs. This is the thing that keeps me up at night: what happens when this magnificent republic experiment called the United State of America jumps the tracks and a new “operating system” rises from the ashes. The chances are it will be worse than what we have, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be that way. It may take generations to get the message of the foxhole out, kinda like never enjoying the shade of the tree you’ve planted.
So be it.
Once again, Ben, you articulate and connect in language what I have been intuiting in my head. Time to get out of my head and into action. The next phase of my life will be as Teacher. My family and I answered the call for volunteers from Meals on Wheels and will help to feed people who are alone and vulnerable. It’s a start.
Bob, I am so incredibly sorry for your loss. This is such a painful time. While I’m also shaking my fist in my mind (ALL.THE.TIME.) at the behavior you mention, and am sorely tempted to agree with separating out the douchebags, it would be very difficult for me personally to deny care if I was in the position to offer it.
This is absolutely not directed to you specifically, but I’m dumbfounded by the cruelty humans have done to each other throughout history. How?? When someone is screaming in agony and begging for mercy? I will admit on Tuesday I could have tolerated it…for a few seconds maybe.
Thank you for sharing, and sending you many, many hugs of comfort.
We missed an opportunity after 9/11 (“go shopping!”) and we missed an opportunity after the GFC (“bend the healthcare cost curve!”). It finally hit me that these were not opportunities missed, but opportunities intentionally squandered by an entrenched political and economic class.
And it’s a fantastic start. Thank you for the kind words, Craig, but much more than that … thank you for your ACTION.
Make. Protect. Teach.
You’re going to be an amazing teacher.
If it comes to that, Barry - and I hope it doesn’t but I fear it will - then we keep the flames of small-l liberalism and small-c conservatism alive in our homes and our hearts. We stay alive. We protect our families. We protect our pack. And one day we will have the chance to emerge and rebuild on a foundation of liberty and justice for all.
The Second Foundation hides in plain sight.
Agree, James and Ben. While I was all of a precocious 15 year old on 9/11, it’s clear that greed leads to squandered opportunity. Any time there’s a group of politically connected people making easy money, you can bet it’ll be hard to make meaningful chain. Look at finance (like your “Overserved” note today), the food industry, religion, etc.
Perhaps because of the extremely accurate observation that “Responsibilities” often turns into serfdom at the hands of our deranged elites.
It also doesn’t help that the elites have been lying to us from day 1 of this disease.
They first said that masks are useless, just wash your hands constantly.
Then, their models showed that everyone was going to get the disease and 15% would die.
Then, they put patients with the disease in nursing homes to run up the death count.
Then, they created numerous (PEER REVIEWED!!) fake studies that showed HCQ doesn’t work (in order to own the bad orange man).
Now, we see that the CFR for people below 70 is ~0.4%.
However, we aren’t taking steps to protect the elder.
We aren’t letting the young and middle-aged to go about their life and build immunity while their immune system is still strong.
No, we’re treating everyone the same and hurting everyone as a result. (And we’re forcing people to cover their face with masks that haven’t been proven to work so people can virtue signal that they care without doing anything to actually help).
If we really want to save lives, we need young volunteers to run errands for the elderly so they can stay safe while the rest of us build herd immunity.
Instead, we’re shutting down everything, causing irreversible psychological, physical, and financial harm and not getting the immunity that we so preciously need.
Continue the discussion at the Epsilon Theory Forum