Aggregationalist Metrics

We, as the 99%, should care a lot about metrics. There is no existing unit-of-account of what it means to be a good society, so every measurement we are given concerning collective good is an approximation based on an implicit set of assumptions.’


That is OK. All social metrics must strike a compromise between at least two competing objectives. One is that they preferably measure something quantifiable that is being generated by the society independent of the measuring project. The other is that it would also be good if they measured something that we really care about.


Comparing a measure of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) to one of Gross National Happiness (“GNH”), GDP has an advantage because it tries to assess a thing that we already do outside of the measuring game—we spend money. GNH, on the other hand, strives to give us direct access to something far more important, happiness. But this calculation relies on mushy surveys of popular sentiment about things like  mental wellness, workplace wellness, and political wellness, all of which are hard to quantify and impossible to aggregate in a remotely judgment-free way.


GDP gives us an account of something measurable that is actually happening, but it is up to us to place it in context.GNH strives for a much more important truth, but we should be wary of the inevitable biases the measuring-technicians bring to it. Having said that, the more we are given and told about a particular measure like GDP, even if it does have beneficial attributes, the more we tend to start believing that it is what we should care about. 


In order to gain a sense of just how distorted GDP is as a measure of societal success, imagine an ideal unit of social well-being.  Let’s call it the Aggra.


 Aggras are generated as a result of people choosing to play cooperatively in situations resembling the Prisoners’ Dilemma. There is a lot on the internet about the Prisoners’ Dilemma, but here is a short summary of it.


Two members of a criminal gang, Al and Bo, are arrested. Each is in solitary confinement with no means of speaking to the other. The police don’t have enough evidence to convict the pair on the principal charge, so if nothing changes the police will offer both sentences of a year on a lesser charge. Before doing so, the police decide to offer each prisoner the opportunity to testify against the other. Here’s how it will play-out:



·         Scenario 1: Al and Bo both remain silent.  Each will only serve 1 year in prison (on the lesser charge).


·         Scenario 2:  Al betrays Bo, and Bo remains silent. Al will be set free and Bo will serve 3 years (and vice versa if Bo betrays Al, and Al remains silent).


·         Scenario 3: Al and Bo each betrays the other. There is conflicting testimony so the police don’t get them cumulatively to serve as long as in Scenario 2, but with the additional testimony, the police do make them serve longer than in Scenario 1. They each end up serving 2 years.


To summarize:


Al betrays Bo

Al silent

Bo betrays Al

Both get 2 years (total 4)

Al=3, Bo=0 (total 3)

Bo silent

Al=0, Bo=3 (total 3)

Al-1, Bo=1 (total 2)


The crazy thing about the Prisoners’ Dilemma is that game theorists rightly claim non-cooperative play is a “dominant strategy.”  Al and Bo both face the following harsh calculus. Regardless of what they assume their counterpart will do, they will do better by not cooperating.  Bo tells himself, if Al betrays me, I get 3 years by staying silent and 2 by ratting so I should rat.  Then he tells himself, if Al stays silent, I get 1 year by staying silent and 0 by ratting, so, again, I should rat.  On this way of thinking, all players would be fools not to act selfishly, because regardless of what they assume the other guy does, they do better by ratting.  But the “paradox” is that by engaging in this seemingly rational thinking, they wind-up with the worst possible combined result (4 years), and even their individual results are worse than what would probably have happened if they hadn’t thought about it all and instead acted randomly (because the average per-person result is 1.5 years, which is better that the 2 years each guy ends up with by thinking about it.) 


There are a lot of reasons to believe that in a wide variety of circumstances, the social norms encouraging us to “be good” are designed to overcome this paradox of what cumulatively (and thus on average) happens when people think “rationally” about social interactions from the selfish perspective. In the above game, cooperative play would yield an aggregate of 2 years in jail, which is better by 1 year than the 3-year total achieved by random play, so we’ll say cooperative play yielded 1 Aggra for the society: “GNA” (Gross National Aggras) is at 1.


Here is a somewhat surprising fact—enforceable contracts and money can work to partially overcome the paradox. If Al and Bo are allowed to reach an enforceable contract to play cooperatively, it would now be rational for them to strike a deal to act cooperatively. In addition, the introduction of currency would allow for all kinds of more complex deals that express differing preferences for end-results held by different participants. For example, it may be the case that Al does not mind jail-time; another guy, Cy, has a boat Al really wants; and Bo is sitting on a pile of society’s operative currency. You might say the availability of the medium of exchange in conjunction with binding contracts allows a more refined expression of people’s preferences because the parties can now reach a deal where: 1 – Al agrees to stay silent; and 2 -Bo rats, buys the boat from Cy, and contractually commits himself to give Al the boat when Al gets out of jail.  The use of the medium of exchange and the enforceability of a contract may seem a bit sleazy here given the context presented by the Prisoners’ Dilemma, but we can hopefully see how money and contracts start addressing and overcoming the paradox.


In an idealized world, however, something even better would happen if we could just hunt for Aggras. That is, rather than approaching the Prisoners’ Dilemma from the calculus and perspective of how we, as individuals, will fare (which leads to the conclusion that selfishness dominates), we would always come to the problem asking what overall strategy achieves the most Aggras for the collective.


There are some interesting observations and tweaks that need to be made to the basic Aggregationalist strategy to address those occasions when non-cooperative play is necessary to punish a consistently selfish player and further account for when, if at all, it is OK (maybe even necessary) to favor friends and relatives; but let’s work for now with a simple Aggregationalist approach. Here are a few observations.


First, Aggregationalist play has the advantage over currency-and-contracts because it gives us a strategy for how to play in the many circumstances where it is just too cumbersome to enter into contracts and exchange money. If we mistook money and contracts as ends in themselves—rather than as tools for achieving a greater objective—we would not know how to act when currency and contract were too cumbersome to invoke.


Second, Aggregationalist play keeps us acting in the optimal way from a game theoretic perspective even after a possibly fair initial allocation of currency becomes imbalanced. An Aggregationalist always calculates each person’s well-being in the game as of equal worth, while currency-based metrics express much more loudly the preferences of the participants with a lot of the exchangeable stuff. In the scenario above, maybe Al really didn’t like jail all that much, but was poor, unemployed, and willing to take a risk on making good when he got out of jail by using the boat to become a fisherman.


The “take-away” for us as members of Occupy should perhaps be a confirmation of what we already know. That is, when people tell us to focus on metrics like GDP as demonstrative of social good or on personal monetary wealth as an approximation of individual social value, that confuses a flawed means of overcoming the Prisoners’ Dilemma (currency and contracts) with the ultimate goal from a game-theorist account of maximizing cooperative exchanges (accumulating Aggras). Furthermore, the GDP-metric based on currency-and-contract fails principally because: 1 –  it totally ignores the large majority of social interactions where the ability to have confidence that people will behave cooperatively without payment makes a society worth living-in, and 2 it rejects the notion of equal worth in favor of a valuation that privileges those with a pre-existing hold on society’s resources. In other words, the critical difference between an idealized Aggregationalist metric and GDP are the Aggregationalist’s focus both on non-monetizable social cooperation and on equality; two bedrock principles of Occupy which are starkly rejected in GDP calculations and the ethical theories that implicitly underlie them.

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