This week: My wife and I miraculously get a week off together not long after our 25th anniversary. We hastily plan a vacation down to Oregon. There’s one worry, though: Parts of our home state of Washington are on fire, as is much of California. Oregon could start to burn too.
Let’s take the gamble, we say, and drive straight into the apocalypse.
The sky has turned orange, and the blood moon is high at 3 p.m. Walking the dog is a challenge; running with the dog is unthinkable. A million acres of land near us are currently burning. This is what the skyline of downtown Portland—a city previously slandered by Trump and FOX News as “on fire” during the protests—looked like on Tuesday.
A few days later, we find ourselves in a Masonic-temple-turned-rustic-hotel with many refugees from the blazes that have left half a million people on evacuation alert. Their children, their dogs, they’re all here too. We might be the only people on vacation here. The evacuees are keeping their spirits up. A pastor tells us of her congregation hall being prepared to become a refugee shelter. But first, she and her family need to take care of themselves. Once they are safe in this hotel, they can tend to hundreds of others.
They have made their choice, a very different one than we did. But all of us are doing something that everyone in America has had to do for most of the year: gamble with our safety, in some cases our very lives. Sometimes we’re taking a flier on a shred of normalcy: a vacation, a haircut, a movie. At other times it’s the hardest choices we’ve faced in years: send a child to school or sacrifice your job, vote in public in a pandemic or bet on a kneecapped postal system, protest fascism when militias and government shocktroops bring AR-15s to the fray. This is not normal, but it is the new normal.
How do we carry on when a single decision could be fatal? It’s so tempting to abrogate the decisions entirely: bunker down, never do anything, just wait it out. After all, we’re “in the middle of a pandemic,” which must mean there’s an imminent end to the pandemic? Right?
Sadly, there’s no guarantee of that. This disease could be with us, in this form or many other possible mutations, forever. It’s true about everything else too. Even if the good guys win, the fascists are here for good, and at least 40 million people will out themselves as fans of the end of democracy. Cops killing brown-skinned people has not slowed down because we’ve given the problem attention. The forest fires, the hurricanes, the bomb cyclones, the fire tornados, the 100 degree heat in Siberia—it’s all here to stay. Just because 2020 is horrible doesn’t mean 2021 won’t be worse.
Vizzini knew two things: never get involved in a land war in Asia, and never go in against a Sicilian when death is on the line. Well, he thought he knew the latter. But (spoiler alert) Westley poisoned both glasses, so drinking from either was fatal, unless like Westley you had spent years building up an immunity to iocaine powder. They were both bad choices. Vizzini should have chosen not to play against a superior opponent, or if he had to play, change the rules. When Vizzini distracted Westley with a “What in the world can that be!” he should not have switched the glasses. He should have poured out his glass. He did not, and now he’s dead.
When you have nothing but bad choices, how should you decide? Game theory has some answers. They’re not great answers, but they are answers nonetheless.
There’s a concept called voluntariness in game theory. It means that if you have other options than compliance with a direction, you are not coerced to that direction—that is, you have a choice, and are responsible for your actions. If a situation is involuntary, you have no choice, and are absolved of responsibility for your actions. But if you have choices, even if all of them are bad, you must maximize your choices.
The canonical example here is (trigger warning: high) abusive relationships. A person in a physically abusive relationship may not be able to leave that relationship without risking their life. Plus, leaving could mean the loss of other elements of their life: children, income, housing, insurance, everything. It may appear that no exit strategy exists, even if one does. It is crucial for a support system to exist outside this relationship so that the abused person sees they have choices, bad as they are. The existence of battered women’s shelters, for example, helps turn an involuntary situation into one with a potential exit. All choices have bad results, but choices can be made.
Because talking about the canonical example is exceedingly stressful, I’m going to talk instead about blackjack. (I’ll get back to the horrible stuff later, I promise.) Unlike in other gambling games like poker and craps, in blackjack you play against another player, but one with different rules and advantages. This player is called the dealer, but more accurately they are the “house”—the entity that runs the game and sets the conditions of play.
In brief, the rules: After putting in a bet, each player gets two cards, then the dealer gets one card faceup. The cards have values equal to their points—2s to 10s are worth face value, face cards are 10, and aces are either 1 or 11. The goal is to get as close to 21 without going over (busting). Once the dealer’s card is exposed, each player may either stand on what they are showing or hit—that is, take one or more additional cards. But if they bust, they lose their bets. If any players don’t bust, the dealer flips over another card. If the dealer has less than 17 (or in some cases, a 17 with an ace), they must hit until their hand totals more than that. If the player exceeds the dealer or gets a 21 regardless, they win. If they tie, they get their bet back. Otherwise, they lose their bet. (There’s more, but let’s leave it at that.)
If the dealer’s showing a 5 and you’ve got an 18, you have good choices. According to Mike Shackleford—the “Wizard of Odds”—the dealer has a 42% chance to bust on a 5. You’re not assured of a win, but you’ve got a great chance.
Now, let’s flip that around. Say the dealer has an ace and you have a 15. The dealer’s ace is very bad for you. But you’re already in the hand. You have no good choices. You will probably regret standing on a 15 against a dealer’s ace. You will also probably regret taking another card.
This is why two other concepts exist in blackjack: surrender and insurance. If the dealer has an ace, you can surrender, meaning you give up and get back half your stake. Or you can take insurance, meaning you take half your bet and put it on the dealer to have a 10-value card, getting 2:1 if you’re right. You now have choices, and some feel better than others.
“Never take insurance. Period. No exceptions.”
You should never take insurance. Let me repeat that so its clear: You should never take insurance. Plus, Shackleford says, the only time you should ever surrender is when you have a 16 and the dealer has a card with a value of 10. In all other cases, the odds do not work out for you. The house wouldn’t offer these options to you if you won more than you lost. They may feel like the right thing to do, but the data says that they are terrible ideas.
Just because a choice exists doesn’t mean you should ever take it. There are situations that look voluntary, but in fact are not. You need to know when you’re in one of those. Vizzini didn’t, and he’s dead.
The data is really the only thing that matters. Let’s get back to the horrible stuff. I’m not going to tell you what to do in these circumstances. But I am going to spell out your choices like they matter. And then I’m going to show why the situation is much worse than it should be.
I’ll start with the virus. Trump says we’re “rounding the corner” on COVID. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases director Dr. Anthony Fauci, who is smart about these things, says we are not. CNN’s Wolf Blitzer’s asked him, “When it comes to discrepancies like this, who should the American people trust: you or the president?”
Here’s what Fauci said.
“I say look at the data; the data speak for themselves. You don’t have to listen to any individual. And the data tells us that we’re still getting up to 40,000 new infections a day and 1,000 deaths. That is what you look at. Look at the science, the evidence, and the data and you can make a pretty easy conclusion.”
The conclusion is indeed easy. But is the decision made from that conclusion?
The most wrenching decision you might have now is whether to send your kids to school or continue to homeschool them. So first, let’s look at who is telling you that you must send the kids back to school: Betsy DeVos, Brian Kemp, Donald Trump. And then who is telling you to be careful: every immunologist on the planet. When making your choice, you would be smart to consider the valuations of grizzled veterans of pandemics over those who are in their rookie season.
But this assumes you have a choice. You may have a job that you will lose if you stay home. You may have a district where your child will not advance if they do not receive in-person instruction. You may be actively harming your child’s education by homeschooling them and trying to do your job at the same time. These situations take away your choices.
And yet, you still have a choice. You can say, “Nothing matters to me more than keeping my household from contracting COVID-19.” If that happens, some of you might die. There’s no class your child could take that would be worth losing a parent over. But you know what you are doing, because you are looking at the data. You are looking at the many school districts that are closing immediately after reopening due to outbreaks. You are looking at the job market giving back its recent gains and weighing whether you could get a new job if you lose this one. You are considering that COVID is a super-effective spreader but not the most effective killer. You are looking at the dysfunction in Congress and thinking you’re not getting a new stimulus check. These observations will sway you one way or another. You are making rational choices even while the world seems entirely irrational.
Maybe kids in school isn’t the challenge you’re facing. The wildfires are very bad. They are making the air unbreathable, and have killed 28 people and destroyed entire towns. Should you stay inside? Look at the data. What data you look at matters, though. Which of these two maps (New York Times on the left, ESRI Disaster Response on the right) tells you whether you should drive into the hot zone?
The maps we looked at when we set out looked more like the ones on the left. But you probably guessed that.
Maybe you’re deciding whether to go out and protest against yet another person of color being needlessly shot by police defending a racist system. Protesting is a choice, right? Well, not to some people. To some people, it’s a demand. For some people, failing to stand up now, when Black people are being choked to death and shot in the back, is tantamount to suicide. Maybe not now, but eventually, it’ll come back around.
But there’s a pandemic, and a lot of the people who don’t want you to protest are exactly the types of people who refuse to wear masks in public. Some of them carry AR-15s; when they use them on you, they get hailed as heroes by the QAnon parasites. The troops being sent to “reinforce” the cops aren’t the same kind of law enforcement officers; they’re unbadged and untrained and possibly ordered to start trouble even when none is underway. The President of the United States has called you—you, a peaceful antifascist protester—a terrorist. This ramps up the degree of danger through the roof.
One more thing: the bad guys are draining your support. By continuing protesting under these circumstances, you may steer allies away from your cause. It’s not clear if this is actually helping the president, but it is clear that people aren’t viewing the protests as favorably now as they did in June. You are falling victim to the law of diminishing returns. Maybe now is time to hang it up.
Yet: If not now, when? The iron is hot, but may cool if the protests stop. And if you’re Black, you’re making life or death decisions everyday that the rest of us can’t comprehend. Just jogging in the wrong neighborhood could be fatal. So the effort now could give you far lower risk later.
You can make this choice by looking at the data. Police chiefs in Los Angeles, Albuquerque, Rochester, Nashville, Dallas, Milwaukee, Seattle, and at least ten more cities have resigned since the protests started. Cities like L.A., New York, Austin, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C. have cut their police budgets. You can decide whether that’s enough, or whether you need to do more, despite the escalating risk.
As the next weeks roll on, you’ll have another hard choice to make. What method of voting do you trust? Do you even have a choice?
The safest thing, from a COVID perspective, is to vote by mail. But Trump’s toady, Postmaster General Louis DeJoy, has hamstrung the Postal Service, slowing down the mail, removing boxes and sorting machines, and generally throwing a spanner in the works. Will the broken post office get your ballot in, or let it die with the live chicks in the dead letter office? Or you could go vote in public—masked, of course—but you might have to stand in a long line with a lot of people for a long time. Scary, huh? Trump has called into question the validity of mail-in ballots and even encouraged his supporters to vote twice. Let’s escalate your blood pressure even further: The President has sworn to send in armed poll watchers — not necessarily even federal officials — to “make sure the votes are counted” (that is, to intimidate people they don’t want to vote). This could be a harrowing election day where people’s lives are literally on the line.
You might not even like your choices. Trump is a monster, but you may think Biden isn’t much better. (I think you’re dead wrong, but this is about you.) But people are telling you that one candidate pledges to stand up to tyrants, and another will end democracy in favor of white supremacy. Your vote is about life or death on a very real scale. So is this the time to vote third party or, even worse, stay home? With all the dangers, is this time to stand up?
Let’s be clear as daylight: The data says you must vote. If you are even a little concerned about the rights you will have left if the GOP retains the White House and Senate, you need to get your vote counted. No matter what dirty tricks await you, your only chance of affecting the nightmare we’re in is to vote. Those of us voting by mail (my only option) must vote for Biden/Harris in such large numbers that Trump has lost before Election Day. Then, any attempt to invalidate the election in the days that follow will be seen as what it is: a fascist attempt to overthrow the American system of government.
Every decision you make can—and must—be evaluated this way. Should you go to a motorcycle rally, knowing that a study called Sturgis a super-spreader event? If you’re a small business owner, should you open your office or keep paying every month for a space no one uses? Movie theaters may reopen, but Christopher Nolan’s Tenet will be the same movie on Netflix that it will be in theaters, so do you want to risk it? Is rage-tweeting at the president, as I do practically every day, a good idea that will stop him from winning, or a bad idea if he wins and goes full dictator? You gotta make these calls yourself.
But with all of this, there’s one big problem. You can only make decisions by looking at the data if you have the data. What we have learned the last few days should rattle your confidence to the core.
This week, Bob Woodward’s book Rage revealed that President Trump knew that COVID-19 was going to be a mega-lethal pandemic in February. All that time he was downplaying its severity, saying it was a hoax, saying it would just magically disappear, saying it could be cured by hydroxychloroquine and oleandrin and bleach, saying masks were unnecessary, and holding massive superspreader events where he bashed the scientists, he knew. He willingly withheld information from the American public so they could not make informed decisions. He made sure that the CDC couldn’t tell you how dangerous this was by having data sent to Alex Azar’s goons at HHS. He muzzled scientists who told him he needed to do more. He held—and continues to hold—rallies where masks are discouraged. He decided that you could not choose for yourself. By encouraging people to spread the virus he knew would kill them, he made the voluntary into an involuntary choice.
There’s a simple term for this: mass murder.
With almost 200,000 dead so far and likely another 200,000 by year’s end, President Trump will intentionally cause more American deaths than any American in history. His intent was criminal, valuing his own reelection above American lives. By robbing you of the data you need to make your choices, he has taken the mantle of this pandemic entirely on himself and his accomplices. If you made a bad decision, you can blame him. Society can blame him. The justice system can blame him.
But only if you make the right choice.
This is the 62nd installment of a series on politics and game theory. It has covered impeachment of Trump, Russian collusion, white supremacy, abortion, guns, nuclear war, debt, Colin Kaepernick, sexual harassment, the Mueller probe, taxes, Trump’s first year, the Clinton Foundation, immigration, parades, the Democrats, hope, family separation, trade wars, the midterms, the Times op-ed, Justice Kavanaugh, Speaker Pelosi, lame ducks, the GOP legacy, the stock market, the Democratic field, shutdowns, third parties, the Virginia scandals, in-party impeachment, the Trump mafia, college admissions, William Barr, Brexit, Iran, the Mueller Report, Joe Biden, Oregon’s standoff, the environment, Jeffrey Epstein, Trump’s lies, Pelosi’s strategy, the impeachment inquiry, political outsiders, Rudy Giuliani, the Berlin wall, protest art, Boris Johnson, religion, engagement, Bernie Sanders, progressive unity, the Democratic nominee, the pandemic, unemployment, rioting, the Klan, the Confederacy, the GOP 2020 strategy, Biden’s strategy, the wildfire crisis, civil war, Kamala Harris, Trump’s COVID diagnosis, and Biden’s case. Most of these appear in my new edition of Game Theory in the Age of Chaos, which you can get on our PledgeManager now.