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16.4.04

Socialism vs. Math

Today in my decisionmaking class, we did a game theory exercise. We formed into small groups, and within each group each person represented a town that wanted to build a wastewater treatment plant. We had a list of net savings that we could gain by forming coalitions to build joint plants between two or more towns. The idea was that we would each bargain, trying to get the best deal for our own town, by shifting alliances and offering better savings allocations to entice other towns into cooperating with us. The game was deliberately designed to be unstable (i.e., to have no final solution that everyone would be happy with, and thus to be open to endless shifting and backstabbing).

But my group and one other group decided to simply find the combination of coalitions that would give the highest total savings, then divide that savings up equally among the towns. We figured it was better to have an allocation publicly known to be equitable, in order to create stability and fairness. When the professor saw us sitting back satisfied before the time was up, he said "Darn. I should have known not to put all the socialists in the same group."

But I don't think socialism is the explanation (though other members of my group may well have been socialists -- I don't know them well enough to say). The real explanation is that we were geographers. And geographers have an aversion to math*. So we took one look at the constant calculations that would be necessary to figure out our advantages in different arrangements and create offers to other towns, and said "no thanks."

*One might think that GIS people, at least, would be math-inclined. But apparently Ron Eastman, who invented Idrisi, is teaching us mathematical ideas -- like Dempster-Schaefer theory and using principal components beyond the third -- that real mathematicians reject.

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