Prometheus Bound: Game theory

By Giovanni Tapang, PhD

The ongoing impeachment trial at the Senate for the removal of Chief Justice Renato Corona is slowly becoming an early afternoon telenovela. Complete with courtroom drama and a cast of judges, accused and prosecutors, it transports listeners and viewers to a local version of Court TV writ large.

Newspapers keep count of prosecution and defense “wins” while commentators on news channels analyze everything including the style and courtroom panache of each actor and participant in this unfolding drama.

The public is in no way a passive viewer in this pintakasi of sorts. Their interest in the proceedings stems from seeking ways to achieve justice long denied to them through various blocks and maneuvers. One of them is seen personified in the Chief Justice. On the other hand, the public is also wary that Prestident Aquino would capitalize on this political crisis and use it to gain control of the Supreme Court. We fear that he would fill the vacancies that would result from Corona’s removal (and others if given the chance) in order to reverse its rulings on cases such as the Hacienda Luisita.

The record of the current Aquino government in filing cases against the former President strengthens this fear out. In his 500 days as president, Aquino’s government has only filed two cases against Arroyo. One is on election sabotage in the 2007 elections and a graft case related to the NBN-ZTE deal. Other charges are being filed only now. Without the watch list order drama at the NAIA, we wonder if charges would have been filed at all.

Unbeknownst to many, as we follow the Senate impeachment trial, we are all analyzing the decisions of the Senator judges, the present and past president, the accused, the prosecutors and justices. How they decide one way or the other is predictable to a certain extent. As an example, in last Tuesday’s hearing, when the prosecutors started with Item number 2 (SALN) in their presentation of evidence, it was expected that the defense would make a motion to put number 1 instead.

This type of prediction is the purview of what is known as game theory. It is a way of analyzing and calculating the outcome in situations such as in games where a person’s success is based upon the choices of others. It has gained wide applications to fields such as economics, mathematics and biology.

The classic introductory example is the so-called prisoner’s dilemma: Two men are arrested for a crime but authorities lack enough information for conviction. The two men are both offered separately a deal that if one betrays his partner (defects), and the other remain silent, the defector goes free and the silent one receives the full penalty. If both remain silent (cooperates with each other), both are sentenced to a minimal charge. If both defect, they both get sentenced to slightly higher charge but still less than the full penalty. The decision is confidential but the prisoners must either choose to defect or remain silent.

Since defection seems to be beneficial than cooperating, objective prisoners would tend to betray each other even if their penalty would be less if they cooperate. The classic game pre-supposes that there is no communication between the prisoners. We can express this payoff matrix in more familiar terms: when both prisoners cooperate, they enter into a “win-win” situation. When they both defect, they end up in a “lose-lose” situation. When one cooperates and the other defects, they are in a situation where one “wins more” and the other “loses more.” Interestingly, rational decision makers would tend to both defect and thus end up in a “lose-lose” situation.

This seemingly simple model of decision making has found many examples in human interactions and in nature. The classic case study in political science is the arms race between two states. In envronmental studies, the current impasse on global emissions of carbon dioxide can be framed and understood in the context of a prisoners dilemma game. In economics, it has been applied to understanding advertising campaigns, competition and pricing.

Yet most real life decisions are made by multiple agents who “cooperates” and “defects” with each other. These decision makers are not isolated from each other and base their actions not only on the apparent payoffs but on more complex forces that they might give more weight to than other agents do. This is seen on the voting patterns in our institutions, not only in the Supreme Court but also in the Senate and House, which reflect their seemingly “win-win” personal position that turns out to be a “lose all” decision for the ordinary public.

In the next few weeks, the public will watch and guard with interest the whole impeachment proceedings. If one tries to study and understand the interaction of all the players in this drama (including external factors such as public opinion, the worsening economic situation and foreign sentiment), we might yet get an idea and have a handle on what the final outcome of this whole exercise will be.###

Dr. Tapang is a physicist and chair of the Agham-Advocates of Science and Technology for the People.

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  1. I am just curious on this win-win and so on situation. At the outset, someone is arrested for a crime based upon evidence or probable cause. If none, then why would he be arrested? Simple as that… Dealing seemed not be be employed otherwise it will only compromise the whole scenario. This predicament is only good in paper but in actuality. Soon it will be disclosed and credibility will be lost…

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