Tuesday, January 26, 2010

The Predictioneer's Game

A couple of months ago, I placed on hold at the library Bruce Bueno de Mesquita's latest book, "The Predictioneer's Game: Using the Logic of Brazen Self-Interest to See and Shape the Future." After waiting for a couple of months, and not making my way high enough on the reserve list, I became impatient and purchased it on my Kindle. Not that a Kindle edition can ever replace an old-fashioned book, as far as I'm concerned. I'm one of those readers that delights in stroking pages, lifting the book close to my nose, and sniffing the insides. If it's a library edition, I like to imagine my brothers and sisters traveling on a similar journey inside the author's head.

While reading "The Predictioneer's Game", I'm wrestling with de Mesquita, the political science professor at New York University and a fellow at the Hoover Institution of Stanford. His book doesn't go down easy. I would rather believe in the altruism of mankind, and that loving kindness prevails. When I'm finished with this book, I'll return to my comforting friends:  Frankl, Ruskin and Proust. But I know that de Mesquita's claim that "every leader's top priority is to stay in power for as long as possible" has merit, so I'll give him a chance. It is tough to begin to analyze people's motives in such a cold, selfish manner. Game theory, the label which the author uses to forecast future events, posits that people do what they believe is in their best interest by paying attention to how other prospective supporters and opponents react at all times. Political survival is crucial in determining human nature, and you can use the formula to grasp motives behind every move. Life is but a game of strategy.

That might help to explain the negotiating tactics that I've been following in the recent press with regard to symphony orchestras and their internal divides in the face of economic uncertainty. Certainly, in the local arena, a "leader" on his way out the door will not have the same inclination to support and reward his workers, and in fact, may use a punitive approach for his loss of power and clout. The incentives to help an ailing arts group may disappear with his title. The what's in it for me effect is palpable.

Conversely, orchestra musicians threatening a decline in musical standard as commensurate with salary, is well, in my opinion an empty threat. As the Wall Street Journal points out in "Too Big to Succeed" orchestras in the United States face an all time low both in terms of audience demand and in philanthropic support. There are so many talented and skilled instrumentalists willing to jump onto the band wagon, with their own self-interests, that I call these grumpy, over-salaried orchestra musicians bluff. They are fortunate to hold exorbitantly high salaried positions. Are the players acting out of self interest? Yes. Do they honestly value their work as a means to enrich the community? No. If this were not the case, a note played at lower compensation would be performed with as much effort and care as a musical note priced higher, and with as much pride in the goal of deliverance of beautiful music to the public.

And what about music critics being paid to offer slanted reviews? Just the other day, while glancing at a classical music web site, I caught a blatant appeal for readers to subscribe to the arts organizations that were promoted on the web site in order for the critic to promote those artists by way of their advertising funds. It's a good thing we don't have a system in place where physicians can be paid by detractors to extinguish lives. At least, I don't think we do.

I would like to believe that Bruce Bueno de Mesquita is overly pessimistic in his conviction of  base, human character. He's lumped Mother Theresa in with all the rest of the self-serving leaders and political players, which I find unsettling. She may have done nice things, writes de Mesquita, but she was really seeking fame and reward for herself, either in this life or the next.

But I'm still listening. Truth is, personnel managers and contractors of orchestras can be bought off easily if they feel their jobs might be jeopardized. Does game theory really hold? Can we use this as a tool to forecast the future, even in the arts?
Cronies will do whatever it takes to keep the boss in power. They will oppress their fellow citizens, they'll silence a free press and punish protesters. They will torture, maim and murder to protect the incumbent as long as the incumbent delivers enough goodies to them.
What do you think?

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