Labor history in the making

Oct 24 JDN 2459512

To say that these are not ordinary times would be a grave understatement. I don’t need to tell you all the ways that this interminable pandemic has changed the lives of people all around the world.

But one in particular is of notice to economists: Labor in the United States is fighting back.

Quit rates are at historic highs. Over 100,000 workers in a variety of industries are simultaneously on strike, ranging from farmworkers to nurses and freelance writers to university lecturers.

After decades of quiescence to ever-worsening working conditions, it seems that finally American workers are mad as hell and not gonna take it anymore.

It’s about time, frankly. The real question is why it took this long. Working conditions in the US have been systematically worse than the rest of the First World since at least the 1980s. It was substantially easier to get the leave I needed to attend my own wedding—in the US—after starting work in the UK than it would have been at the same kind of job in the US, because UK law requires employers to grant leave from the day they start work, while US federal law and the law in many states doesn’t require leave at all for anyone—not even people who are sick or recently gave birth.

So, why did it happen now? What changed? The pandemic threw our lives into turmoil, that much is true. But it didn’t fundamentally change the power imbalance between workers and employers. Why was that enough?

I think I know why. The shock from the pandemic didn’t have to be enough to actually change people’s minds about striking—it merely had to be enough to convince people that others would show up. It wasn’t the first-order intention “I want to strike” that changed; it was the second-order belief “Other people want to strike too”.

For a labor strike is a coordination game par excellence. If 1 person strikes, they get fired and replaced. If 2 or 3 or 10 strike, most likely the same thing. But if 10,000 strike? If 100,000 strike? Suddenly corporations have no choice but to give in.

The most important question on your mind when you are deciding whether or not to strike is not, “Do I hate my job?” but “Will my co-workers have my back?”.

Coordination games exhibit a very fascinating—and still not well-understood—phenomenon known as Schelling points. People will typically latch onto certain seemingly-arbitrary features of their choices, and do so well enough that simply having such a focal point can radically increase the level of successful coordination.

I believe that the pandemic shock was just such a Schelling point. It didn’t change most people’s working conditions all that much: though I can see why nurses in particular would be upset, it’s not clear to me that being a university lecturer is much worse now than it was a year ago. But what the pandemic did do was change everyone’s working conditions, all at once. It was a sudden shock toward work dissatisfaction that applied to almost the entire workforce.

Thus, many people who were previously on the fence about striking were driven over the edge—and then this in turn made others willing to take the leap as well, suddenly confident that they would not be acting alone.

Another important feature of the pandemic shock was that it took away a lot of what people had left to lose. Consider the two following games.

Game A: You and 100 other people each separately, without communicating, decide to choose X or Y. If you all choose X, you each get $20. But if even one of you chooses Y, then everyone who chooses Y gets $1 but everyone who chooses X gets nothing.

Game B: Same as the above, except that if anyone chooses Y, everyone who chooses Y also gets nothing.

Game A is tricky, isn’t it? You want to choose X, and you’d be best off if everyone did. But can you really trust 100 other people to all choose X? Maybe you should take the safe bet and choose Y—but then, they’re thinking the same way.


Game B, on the other hand, is painfully easy: Choose X. Obviously choose X. There’s no downside, and potentially a big upside.

In terms of game theory, both games have the same two Nash equilibria: All-X and All-Y. But in the second game, I made all-X also a weak dominant strategy equilibrium, and that made all the difference.

We could run these games in the lab, and I’m pretty sure I know what we’d find: In game A, most people choose X, but some people don’t, and if you repeat the game more and more people choose Y. But in game B, almost everyone chooses X and keeps on choosing X. Maybe they don’t get unanimity every time, but they probably do get it most of the time—because why wouldn’t you choose X? (These are testable hypotheses! I could in fact run this experiment! Maybe I should?)

It’s hard to say at this point how effective these strikes will be. Surely there will be some concessions won—there are far too many workers striking for them all to get absolutely nothing. But it remains uncertain whether the concessions will be small, token changes just to break up the strikes, or serious, substantive restructuring of how work is done in the United States.

If the latter sounds overly optimistic, consider that this is basically what happened in the New Deal. Those massive—and massively successful—reforms were not generated out of nowhere; they were the result of the economic crisis of the Great Depression and substantial pressure by organized labor. We may yet see a second New Deal (a Green New Deal?) in the 2020s if labor organizations can continue putting the pressure on.

The most important thing in making such a grand effort possible is believing that it’s possible—only if enough people believe it can happen will enough people take the risk and put in the effort to make it happen. Apathy and cynicism are the most powerful weapons of the status quo.


We are witnessing history in the making. Let’s make it in the right direction.

Self-fulfilling norms

Post 242: Jun 10 JDN 2458280

Imagine what it would be like to live in a country with an oppressive totalitarian dictator. For millions of people around the world, this is already reality. For us in the United States, it’s becoming more terrifyingly plausible all the time.

You would probably want to get rid of this dictator. And even if you aren’t in the government yourself, there are certainly things you could do to help with that: Join protests, hide political dissenters in your basement, publish refutations of the official propaganda on the Internet. But all of these things carry great risks. How do you know whether it’s worth the risk?

Well, a very important consideration in that reasoning is how many other people agree with you. In the extreme case where everyone but the dictator agrees with you, overthrowing him should be no problem. In the other extreme case where nobody agrees with you, attempting to overthrow him will inevitably result in being imprisoned and tortured as a political prisoner. Everywhere in between, your probability of success increases as the number of people who agree with you increases.

But how do you know how many people agree with you? You can’t just ask them—simply asking someone “Do you support the dictator?” is a dangerous thing to do in a totalitarian society. Simply by asking around, you could get yourself into a lot of trouble. And if people think you might be asking on behalf of the government, they’re always going to say they support the dictator whether or not they do.

If you believe that enough people would support you, you will take action against the dictator. But if you don’t believe that, you won’t take the chance. Now, consider the fact that many other people are in the same position: They too would only take action if they believed others would.

You are now in what’s called a coordination game. The best decision for you depends upon what everyone else decides. There are two equilibrium outcomes of this game: In one, you all keep your mouths shut and the dictator continues to oppress you. In the other, you all rise up together and overthrow the dictator. But if you take an action out of equilibrium, that could be very bad for you: If you rise up against the dictator without support, you’ll be imprisoned and tortured. If you support the dictator while others try to overthrow him, you might be held responsible for some of his crimes once the coup d’etat is complete.

And what about people who do support the dictator? They might still be willing to go along with overthrowing him, if they saw the writing on the wall. But if they think the dictator can still win, they will stand with him. So their beliefs, also, are vital in deciding whether to try to overthrow the dictator.

This results in a self-fulfilling norm. The dictator can be overthrown, if and only if enough people believe that the dictator can be overthrown.

There are much more mundane examples of of self-fulfilling norms. Most of our traffic laws are actually self-fulfilling norms as much as they are real laws; enforcement is remarkably weak, particularly when you compare it to the rate of compliance. Most of us have driven faster than the speed limit or run a red light on occasion; but how often do you drive on the wrong side of the road, or stop on green and go on red? It is best to drive on the right side of the road if, and only if, everyone believes it is best to drive on the right side of the road. That’s a self-fulfilling norm.

Self-fulfilling norms are a greatly underappreciated force in global history. We often speak as though historical changes are made by “great men”—powerful individuals who effect chance through their charisma or sheer force of will. But that power didn’t exist in a vacuum. For good (Martin Luther King) or for ill (Adolf Hitler), “great men” only have their power because they can amass followers. The reason they can amass followers is that a large number of people already agree with them—but are too afraid to speak up, because they are trapped in a self-fulfilling norm. The primary function of a great leader is to announce—at great personal risk—views that they believe others already hold. If indeed they are correct, then they can amass followers by winning the coordination game. If they are wrong, they may suffer terribly at the hands of a populace that hates them.

There is persuasion involved, but typically it’s not actually persuading people to believe that something is right; it’s persuading people to actually take action, convincing them that there is really enough chance of succeeding that it is worth the risk. Because of the self-fulfilling norm, this is a very all-or-nothing affair; do it right and you win, but do it wrong and your whole movement collapses. You essentially need to know exactly what battles you can win, so that you only fight those battles.

The good news is that information technology may actually make this easier. Honest assessment of people’s anonymous opinions is now easier than ever. Large-scale coordination of activity with relative security is now extremely easy, as we saw in the Arab Spring. This means that we are entering an era of rapid social change, where self-fulfilling norms will rise and fall at a rate never before seen.

In the best-case scenario, this means we get rid of all the bad norms and society becomes much better.

In the worst-case scenario, we may find out that most people actually believe in the bad norms, and this makes those norms all the more entrenched.

Only time will tell.

The game theory of holidays

Dec 25, JDN 2457748

When this post goes live, it will be Christmas; so I felt I should make the topic somehow involve the subject of Christmas, or holidays in general.

I decided I would pull back for as much perspective as possible, and ask this question: Why do we have holidays in the first place?

All human cultures have holidays, but not the same ones. Cultures with a lot of mutual contact will tend to synchronize their holidays temporally, but still often preserve wildly different rituals on those same holidays. Yes, we celebrate “Christmas” in both the US and in Austria; but I think they are baffled by the Elf on the Shelf and I know that I find the Krampus bizarre and terrifying.

Most cultures from temperate climates have some sort of celebration around the winter solstice, probably because this is an ecologically important time for us. Our food production is about to get much, much lower, so we’d better make sure we have sufficient quantities stored. (In an era of globalization and processed food that lasts for months, this is less important, of course.) But they aren’t the same celebration, and they generally aren’t exactly on the solstice.

What is a holiday, anyway? We all get off work, we visit our families, and we go through a series of ritualized actions with some sort of symbolic cultural meaning. Why do we do this?

First, why not work all year round? Wouldn’t that be more efficient? Well, no, because human beings are subject to exhaustion. We need to rest at least sometimes.

Well, why not simply have each person rest whenever they need to? Well, how do we know they need to? Do we just take their word for it? People might exaggerate their need for rest in order to shirk their duties and free-ride on the work of others.

It would help if we could have pre-scheduled rest times, to remove individual discretion.

Should we have these at the same time for everyone, or at different times for each person?

Well, from the perspective of efficiency, different times for each person would probably make the most sense. We could trade off work in shifts that way, and ensure production keeps moving. So why don’t we do that?
Well, now we get to the game theory part. Do you want to be the only one who gets today off? Or do you want other people to get today off as well?

You probably want other people to be off work today as well, at least your family and friends so that you can spend time with them. In fact, this is probably more important to you than having any particular day off.

We can write this as a normal-form game. Suppose we have four days to choose from, 1 through 4, and two people, who can each decide which day to take off, or they can not take a day off at all. They each get a payoff of 1 if they take the same day off, 0 if they take different days off, and -1 if they don’t take a day off at all. This is our resulting payoff matrix:

1 2 3 4 None
1 1/1 0/0 0/0 0/0 0/-1
2 0/0 1/1 0/0 0/0 0/-1
3 0/0 0/0 1/1 0/0 0/-1
4 0/0 0/0 0/0 1/1 0/-1
None -1/0 -1/0 -1/0 -1/0 -1/-1

 

It’s pretty obvious that each person will take some day off. But which day? How do they decide that?
This is what we call a coordination game; there are many possible equilibria to choose from, and the payoffs are highest if people can somehow coordinate their behavior.

If they can actually coordinate directly, it’s simple; one person should just suggest a day, and since the other one is indifferent, they have no reason not to agree to that day. From that point forward, they have coordinated on a equilibrium (a Nash equilibrium, in point of fact).

But suppose they can’t talk to each other, or suppose there aren’t two people to coordinate but dozens, or hundreds—or even thousands, once you include all the interlocking social networks. How could they find a way to coordinate on the same day?

They need something more intuitive, some “obvious” choice that they can call upon that they hope everyone else will as well. Even if they can’t communicate, as long as they can observe whether their coordination has succeeded or failed they can try to set these “obvious” choices by successive trial and error.

The result is what we call a Schelling point; players converge on this equilibrium not because there’s actually anything better about it, but because it seems obvious and they expect everyone else to think it will also seem obvious.

This is what I think is happening with holidays. Yes, we make up stories to justify them, or sometimes even have genuine reasons for them (Independence Day actually makes sense being on July 4, for instance), but the ultimate reason why we have a holiday on one day rather than other is that we had to have it some time, and this was a way of breaking the deadlock and finally setting a date.

In fact, weekends are probably a more optimal solution to this coordination problem than holidays, because human beings need rest on a fairly regular basis, not just every few months. Holiday seasons now serve more as an opportunity to have long vacations that allow travel, rather than as a rest between work days. But even those we had to originally justify as a matter of religion: Jews would not work on Saturday, Christians would not work on Sunday, so together we will not work on Saturday or Sunday. The logic here is hardly impeccable (why not make it religion-specific, for example?), but it was enough to give us a Schelling point.

This makes me wonder about what it would take to create a new holiday. How could we actually get people to celebrate Darwin Day or Sagan Day on a large scale, for example? Darwin and Sagan are both a lot more worth celebrating than most of the people who get holidays—Columbus especially leaps to mind. But even among those of us who really love Darwin and Sagan, these are sort of half-hearted celebrations that never attain the same status as Easter, much less Thanksgiving or Christmas.

I’d also like to secularize—or at least ecumenicalize—the winter solstice celebration. Christianity shouldn’t have a monopoly on what is really something like a human universal, or at least a “humans who live in temperate climates” universal. It really isn’t Christmas anyway; most of what we do is celebrating Yule, compounded by a modern expression in mass consumption that is thoroughly borne of modern capitalism. We have no reason to think Jesus was actually born in December, much less on the 25th. But that’s around the time when lots of other celebrations were going on anyway, and it’s much easier to convince people that they should change the name of their holiday than that they should stop celebrating it and start celebrating something else—I think precisely because that still preserves the Schelling point.

Creating holidays has obviously been done before—indeed it is literally the only way holidays ever come into existence. But part of their structure seems to be that the more transparent the reasons for choosing that date and those rituals, the more empty and insincere the holiday seems. Once you admit that this is an arbitrary choice meant to converge an equilibrium, it stops seeming like a good choice anymore.

Now, if we could find dates and rituals that really had good reasons behind them, we could probably escape that; but I’m not entirely sure we can. We can use Darwin’s birthday—but why not the first edition publication of On the Origin of Species? And Darwin himself is really that important, but why Sagan Day and not Einstein Day or Niels Bohr Day… and so on? The winter solstice itself is a very powerful choice; its deep astronomical and ecological significance might actually make it a strong enough attractor to defeat all contenders. But what do we do on the winter solstice celebration? What rituals best capture the feelings we are trying to express, and how do we defend those rituals against criticism and competition?

In the long run, I think what usually happens is that people just sort of start doing something, and eventually enough people are doing it that it becomes a tradition. Maybe it always feels awkward and insincere at first. Maybe you have to be prepared for it to change into something radically different as the decades roll on.

This year the winter solstice is on December 21st. I think I’ll be lighting a candle and gazing into the night sky, reflecting on our place in the universe. Unless you’re reading this on Patreon, by the time this goes live, you’ll have missed it; but you can try later, or maybe next year.

In fifty years all the cool kids will be doing it, I’m sure.