The Senate Presidency and the Prisoner’s Dilemma

Sta. Ana coordinates Action for Economic Reforms.  This article was published in the Opinion Section, Yellow Pad Column of BusinessWorld, July 9, 2007  edition, page S1/4.

The slogan that rallied people to vote opposition in the May 2007 Senate elections was “The Filipino people versus Gloria Macapagal Arroyo (GMA).”  And it was a landslide victory for the opposition despite the cheating.

At least eight anti-GMA senators have thus far won, and this gives the opposition an edge in the Senate.  The opposition can overwhelm the lackeys of GMA, since it has the numbers to take over the Senate leadership.

The Senate election should be a continuation of the fight billed as “the Filipino people versus GMA.”    The senators, especially the newly elected ones, should absorb the people’s message to them—be united in fighting GMA.

So long as the opposition senators remain united, the Senate leadership is theirs.  The pickings will be easy; the key committees will be for the taking.

But what seems to be an easy task of maintaining unity is turning out to be hard and complicated, as individual, nay, selfish interests, conflict with the collective interests.  This problem has disturbed the public, with public opinion critical of the behavior of some of the key players.

Columnist Billy Esposo (Philippine Star, 8 July 2007) said he was “by no means pleased with what’s happening — having to watch self interests being pursued even before the mandate of the people has been served.”

Columnist Manolo Quezon (Philippine Daily Inquirer, 5 July 2007) agitates the opposition senators: “Eye on the prize! Elect a leader purely on the basis of your own number, and without compromising with the administration. Don’t squander your historic duty to mount a sturdy defense of the chamber and democracy, as demanded by the people.”

Will the players who are more concerned with advancing personal gain listen to the exhortations of opinion makers like Billy and Manolo?   Yes, if they realize that cooperation, not betrayal, will result in bigger benefits for everyone—for themselves, for their group, for the Filipino people.

What we have here is a typical case of the prisoner’s dilemma, a game of cooperation or non-cooperation in which the rational, calculating individual ends up thinking that the best way to maximize his or her payoff is by way of non-cooperation.

Those with ambitions for the presidency in 2010 would not want to cooperate with those they perceive as their main challenger.  Hence Mar Roxas, Ping Lacson and Loren Legarda will oppose Manny Villar becoming the Senate President.  In turn, the threat of losing support from a faction within his camp makes Manny Villar look for allies among the senators who are supporters of GMA.  GMA and her allies have cleverly exploited the situation to drive a wedge between the senators in the opposition.  Juan Ponce Enrile even made an uppity remark that he would vote Senator Villar for Senate President because he preferred Senator Nene Pimentel to remain minority leader!

The fight is not really between Senator Villar, one who has a good opportunity to become the next President, and Senator Pimentel, one who is no longer interested in higher office but in preserving his good reputation for posterity. Senator Villar and Senator Pimentel are very good friends.

To repeat, the fight involves those who covet the presidency in 2010.  But in this fight, their main enemy, GMA, gains.  They also get clobbered by the criticisms of those who voted for them.  This creates space for dark horses like Senator Alan Peter Cayetano to emerge as the credible and trusted leader of the opposition.  In short, the in-fighting is damaging to their individual interests.

In the prisoner’s dilemma game, the police separately interrogate two prisoners accused of committing the same crime.  The interrogating officers give each prisoner a choice: betray your accomplice or remain silent.  If neither prisoner squeals, both of them go to jail for one year.  If one betrays his accomplice but his accomplice remains silent, the betrayer goes free and the accomplice who remains silent gets a sentence of 15 years in jail.  If both betray each other, they get a sentence of 10 years.

Suppose you are one of the two prisoners and you think that your accomplice will remain silent, the temptation for you to fink is great, because it means your freedom.  If you remain silent, both you and your fellow prisoner stay in jail for one year. In other words, in this setting, the rational response is for you to betray the other.

Take the other possibility—that your accomplice will betray you.  If you remain silent, you alone go to jail for 15 years!  But if you likewise betray your accomplice, you get a lighter sentence of 10 years. So again, seemingly, the best response is betraying your accomplice.

But since both prisoners choose the response of betraying each other, thinking this is the strategy that maximizes self-interest, both will end up in jail for 10 years.  If both had only cooperated with each other by remaining silent, they could have spent only a year in jail.

I hope the contending senators will grasp the lessons from the prisoner’s dilemma. If they want a more vivid example, my piece of advice for them is to have time out to relax and watch as a group the award-winning film Beautiful Mind, a film based on the life of John Nash.  Mr. Nash is famous for being a recipient of the Nobel Prize in economics.  There’s a scene (probably apocryphal) where Nash shows how cooperation, not rivalry, is the best strategy in dating the most attractive woman on campus.  The result would have been disastrous for the whole gang if they all competed in pursuing the same beautiful coed and ignored her girlfriends.

In many instances in real life, from dating women to winning the Senate Presidency, games of cooperation yield the best payoff for everyone.

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