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Game theory—in practice

from David Ruccio




Back when I taught Principles of Microeconomics, I offered a lecture or two on game theory. Given how terrible most textbook presentations are, I used to borrowed heavily from the work of Judith Mehta and Shaun Hargreaves-Heap and Yanis Varoufakis to explain the key assumptions behind and the tensions generated within game theory.

Now, Varoufakis is back—in a very different capacity, of course—to explain the lesson he learned from his studies of game theory:

The trouble with game theory, as I used to tell my students, is that it takes for granted the players’ motives. In poker or blackjack this assumption is unproblematic. But in the current deliberations between our European partners and Greece’s new government, the whole point is to forge new motives. To fashion a fresh mind-set that transcends national divides, dissolves the creditor-debtor distinction in favor of a pan-European perspective, and places the common European good above petty politics, dogma that proves toxic if universalized, and an us-versus-them mind-set.

And the payoff?

One may think that this retreat from game theory is motivated by some radical-left agenda. Not so. The major influence here is Immanuel Kant, the German philosopher who taught us that the rational and the free escape the empire of expediency by doing what is right.

How do we know that our modest policy agenda, which constitutes our red line, is right in Kant’s terms? We know by looking into the eyes of the hungry in the streets of our cities or contemplating our stressed middle class, or considering the interests of hard-working people in every European village and city within our monetary union. After all, Europe will only regain its soul when it regains the people’s trust by putting their interests center-stage.

*This is Bill O’Grady’s view of the payoff matrix of the “game” being played by Greece and the EU—as seen by the Syriza party.

Our view is that Syriza believes that caving in to the EU will end its political movement before it really begins. Caving in produces the outcome of -100 in quadrants one and three. Thus, its only positive payoff is to press for restructuring at all costs, while the EU caves (quadrant two outcome). At the same time, we think Tsipras believes that the costs to the EU of caving to Syriza aren’t all that high, but a situation in which both parties hold (quadrant four outcome), which probably entails a Greek exit from the Eurozone, is devastating for the EU. If the Eurozone breaks up, the Pandora Media Inc (NYSE:P)’s Box of European nationalism is released with all the risks that entails. The conditions that led to two world wars will return. And, most importantly, Germany loses its single currency free-trade zone. Thus, we fear that Syriza has concluded that the EU/Germany/ECB has no choice but to cave as long as Syriza holds firm.


  1. Achilleas
    February 17, 2015 at 6:15 pm

    something is wrong with the game table and the explanation in the text.
    The quadrants 1 and 3 show -10 (not -100).
    Also from the table the only equilibrium seems to be quadrant 3, ie for Greece to CAVE and for EU to HOLD, which is the opposite of the one suggested in the article…

  2. David F. Ruccio
    February 18, 2015 at 2:47 pm

    My bad! I uploaded the wrong payoff matrix, a mistake I’ve now corrected in the edited post. Thanks for catching it.

  3. Achilleas
    February 18, 2015 at 5:16 pm

    Unfortunately this is still incorrect:

    The cost of Greece HOLDing when EU is also HOLDing is much bigger than -100 (I would say -1000) because–according to the Greek Government–they cannot contemplate a Grexit (it is considered a catastrophe for them).

    So quadrant 4 should read more like -500/-1000 (or something like that).
    In this case you have the standard chicken game with two possible equilibria

    All these assuming we can apply game theory to this situation…which at least in this forum should be highly contested…

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