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UISG election mimics national politics

BY LAWRENCE DE GEEST | APRIL 13, 2009 7:30 AM

It is hard to accept that UI Student Government is an uncompromising three-way that pleasurably chaffs everyone within it. But a game theorist would argue it makes sense. Even though only one will emerge president, they will all at least get the chance to walk away with valuable information about the other candidates, and maybe go on to law school. The only losers, it seems, are the apathetic — but if one envisions the winners in a representative democracy to be those who do something, then they in fact have always been losers. This is why even the laziest student should care about UISG, regardless of what it actually does. Much as people may first learn about humanity through their families and about sex from friends or porn, so, too, does UISG introduce the art of politics to the general student audience. The adventurous and the apathetic quickly split, and it soon becomes a split between winners and losers, where the difference between the two is the difference between The Great Gatsby’s Nick Carroway and Jay Gatsby: Both see the green light flash at the other end of the water, but only the latter has the courage to follow it. It is also the difference between sex and masturbation — but few people would ever admit to it.

Not convinced? Consider the mathematics that solve cheap-talk signaling games, a branch of game theory that studies games of asymmetric information in which players exchange costless signals to encourage play in their favor. A UISG campaign is composed of two games: one between the parties and the non-party-affiliated voters and one among the parties themselves. For simplicity’s sake, assume each game consists of two players. The first game is less influential because the “cheap talk” signals sent to the non-party-affiliated voters — T-shirts, bar crawls, pep-rally debates, monotonous Facebook stalking and status updates, and endless and vacuous rhetoric promising “change” — discourage them from voting. The second game is exaggerated and solved through the logic of popularity; one becomes popular by partially concealing information rather than completely revealing it. Solutions to such games where players compete internally — or endogenously, as a famous 1987 paper by Farrell and Gibbons demonstrated — and can all credibly send the same signals are called Perfect Bayesian Pooling Equilibria. And in our UISG game, this means players are now motivated to lie, and the winner is simply the best liar.

Unfortunately, UISG is full of cheap talk. And according to many students surrounding the campaigns, even DI reporters have conducted their work dishonestly. But there is an alternative solution. Much as all games carry a mixed-strategy Nash equilibrium solution, so too do cheap-talk signaling games each carry at least one “babbling equilibrium,” where no action is taken. This translates to zero voting from all non-party-affiliated students, signaling to the university that UISG is in no form representative, and thus setting it for the guillotine. It worked somewhat for the French and American Revolutions. But such a scenario this year is unlikely. Go Party will probably get votes from the business school and the greek community, which is how VIP won last year. People will vote for Your Party for the same reasons they voted for Barack Obama: They see it as the lesser evil, or they are insecure and want to change their life in any way. And people may vote for L Party out of spite for the other two.

Why is there such a dispirit and lack of camaraderie on campus, even after the beloved President Obama encouraged us to cooperate? Perhaps it is because we don’t like each other, or perhaps it is because our soft and comfortable generation is one of expectation. In the 1960s, UI students nearly managed to burn down the IMU through organized effort and protest against the Vietnam War. The only thing that has commonly united students of all persuasions today has been the 21-ordinance. And all the while, the non-voters accuse UISG junkies for padding their résumés. But anyone who accuses someone who joins UISG to do so should examine whether or not they’ve ever taken a job, a project, or a class to do the same. If they haven’t, then they’ve wasted their money. An undergraduate degree from the UI will look nice on the refrigerator, but without employable skills, that’s all it will ever be. If there’s no cooperation, we are always motivated to focus only on our own lives.

Readers might dismiss this piece as cynical, but they should remember Diogenes, the father of cynicism, who argued that man suffers from too much civilization. They should also consider why, in the United States, the most unpopular politicians seem to last the longest. Why were Robert and John Kennedy assassinated and not George W. Bush? Is this an ominous sign for Obama? Finally, they should consider Gresham’s Law — a law regarding monetary policy that dates from the 16th century — which suggests, in our UISG games, the bad politicians, when mixed with the good politicians, will drive them out of the market. If this all seems trivial at the university level, consider how it may apply to the national level, where many former student presidents make their money.


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