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March 12, 2007



I thought it was an interesting programme too - but it really didn't hang together. I think you've summed up what I felt was wrong with it pretty well (it is just that I didn't have the references!).

Still, it was thought-provoking, and I look forward to seeing the next two in the series...

Not Saussure

Not that I know much about game theory, but it's always struck me that that the Prisoner's Dilemma is a bit of an artificial situation; in real life, lots would depend on how close you were to the other prisoner (if it were your brother, you probably wouldn't be as likely to betray him as you might be a perfect stranger) and on how much you feared gaining a reputation as a grass. And if the prisoners were members of PIRA, for example, you'd have both ideological commitment and very real fears of retaliation with which to contend.

As to the variant the programme gave concerning selling the stolen diamond to a major criminal, I think the moral of that story is, don't steal diamonds that valuable unless you, yourself, are part of a criminal organisation large enough for the buyer not to want to upset you but, if you must ignore this advice, consider having both sides offer hostages as guarantors of their good faith.


Thanks for that.

I fell asleep half way through. I was hoping someone would tell me what had happened.

Peter Briffa

You should have been watching Castaway. A lot better.


KB Player

Interesting post. Gives me some basis for thinking the programme was a mish mash of ideas, each single one needing a lot more time and space than its five minute cameo role. As for Madeleine Bunting - tossing her a big idea to play with is like chucking a beach ball at a toddler. It's a cruelty to see her try and hug it proudly as her very own and then start swaying under its size.

Maynard Handley

What do you expect? TV, film and radio documentaries are pretty much always crap. As Martin Mayer put it in _About Television_
Moreover, the audiences drawn by both news and documentaries tend to be slightly below average in both education and income, a fact that always shocks people who have not thought much about television.
It is hard to see how matters could be otherwise. Leland Johnson of the RAND Corporation, who did studies for the Ford and Markle Foundations on the prospects for cable television, was apologetic about his failure to watch the medium at all. “My problem is,” he said, “that television is a very low-rate data transmission system, and I just don’t have time for that.” Despite much assertion to the contrary, television for most reasonably well-educated people is an extremely inefficient way to learn about anything. People really do learn at their own rate, and television is the most hopeless of lockstep classrooms, insisting that everyone in the audience work on the same time scale. As Wilbur Schramm and his associates put it in their book Television in the Lives of Our Children, “Watching television, the viewer cannot set his own pace. . . . This quality, of course, makes for good storytelling, good fantasy, because in those forms the storyteller should be in charge, and the viewer should surrender himself. But it makes learning harder. That is why the child, after he learns to read well . . . tends to seek information more often from print. With print be is in greater control.”
None of this is to deny that documentaries have been artistically among the most satisfying and socially among the most important contributions of television, or to accept the idea that the poor ratings and minimal audience quality of documentaries give networks an excuse not to make and air them. But it does suggest that among those who insist Middle America is very stupid there are some who may not be so bright themselves.

Mayer wrote this in 1972; and yet we still hear the same old cliches today, which tells you something about which half of those above or below average intelligence gets to control eductation, the media, and political discourse.

Fabian Tassano

I agree the basic flaw of the programme (apart from the fact that the whole thing had the flavour of propaganda) was its dodgy intellectual history of self-interest as an assumption. Rather a serious flaw, given it seemed to form the centrepiece of the whole presentation.

I don't know what ideological implications Nash himself saw the Prisoner's Dilemma as having, but in current economics courses the thing is usually presented as an example of market failure, and hence as a potential justification for state intervention.


I don't agree with Curtis's theories, I think there is more going on, but I think you're rather missing the wood for the trees.

The idea as I saw it was not (as you present it) that Nash and other Cold War thinkers invented these ideas, but they are the ones who propelled them into the actions of government on a large scale.

It's clear you like "public choice theory" from a lot of your other postings. The problem is that you while you propose meaningful potential alternatives, the people in power don't. They simply want to replace government control with oligopolistic market control. This isn't really all that big an advance. And the tragedy of Hayek is that he never understood that.


There is something wrong with your counter to the argument about the social effects of an ideology promoting models based on self-interest - for even if one grants that this model goes back to Hobbes, one of the effects of the model is surely implicit in this sentence: "But Nash's was not a theory of human nature - his view of people as isolated rational maximizers was a mere assumption, as his PhD dissertation (pdf) makes clear."

Surely, this is a dodge - he didn't just pick the assumption of isolated rational maximizers out of the air - that this assumption seemed viable is exactly one of the effects of the self-interested ideology - to skew economic models to a narrow range of assumptions about human behavior. It isn't as if theoretical economics has no connection to normative economics. In fact, one can pretty easily find evidence for attitude shifts reflecting shifts in the way economics viewpoints are distributed and ratified in a society. Many economic policies explicitly depend on this - Thatcher's policies in particular.

Furthermore, an attitude of distrust of top down management plus identifying such management styles with the "government" - as though private enterprise were bureaucracy free - does justify the amazing proliferation of private military services at work in Iraq. There is certainly not one factor at work in the disaster there, but the idea, a., that the Coalition authority had some mandate to give iraq the shock treatment so popular in Eastern Europe in the 90s, plus the blind willingness of the American government to allow private American companies to go about their work absolutely unsupervised, plus the abrogation of security services normally part of the spectrum provided by the state - so that representatives of the Green zone are, bizarrely, often guarded by mercenaries being paid ten times more by the Pentagon than the Pentagon pays its own soldiers - has created a sick atmosphere there that is very much the product of the Hayekian suspicion of government and the rather bizarre Hayekian notion that making laws is a 'freebie' - it doesn't count as top down control, but is a sort of self-disinterested act on the part of the governors of the state. This fetishism of law, again, was reflected in the actions of the CPA.

For all of these reasons, I think your criticism doesn't really grapple with the essence of this issue.

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