November 30, 2006
Sending A Message
Daniel Davies disposes of the latest argument for "staying the course":
[S]ince game theory in general provides the analyst with so many opportunities to twist himself repeatedly up his own arse like a berserk Klein bottle, if a given real-world course of action appears to have nothing going for it other than a game-theoretic or strategic justification, it’s almost certainly a bad idea. Thus it is with that bastard child of deterrence, “credibility”.I'd quote the whole thing, but then you'd miss out on the fun of clicking the link.
The idea is that the war is costing huge amounts of money and lives with no real prospect of success and a distinct danger that it is making things much worse. However, to do the logical thing would send the signal to our enemies that we will give up if fought to a pointless bloody standstill. Therefore, for strategic reasons, we must redouble our efforts, in order to send the signal to our enemies that we will fight implacably and mindlessly in any battle we happen to get into, forever, in order to dissuade them from attacking us in the first place.
It is certainly true that one of the benefits of doing something stupid is that it saves you from having to spend money on maintaining your reputation as an idiot. However, is the reputation of an idiot really worth having?
It turns out that it can be proved by theorem that the answer is no. If the game of being a belligerent idiot with no sensible regard for one’s own welfare was worth the candle, in the sense of conferring benefits which outweighed the cost of gaining it, then everyone would want to get that reputation, whether they were genuinely an idiot or not. But if everyone wanted that reputation,then everyone would know that simply acting like an idiot didn’t mean that you were one, in which case it would be impossible to establish a reputation as an idiot in the first place. The point here is that it’s one of the more important things in game theory that a signal has to be a costly signal to be credible; like membership of the Modern Languages Association, a reputation in deterrence theory is something that is worth having, but not worth getting. People who use the word “signal” in this context ... don’t always seem to realise that they are explicitly admitting that the costs of being in Iraq are greater than the benefits.