The Prisoner's Dilemma Problem for Chris Christie

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News that the lawyer for former Port Authority official David Wildstein has sent a letter to the PA claiming that New Jersey Governor Chris Christie has been lying about his lack of early knowledge about the George Washington Bridge lane closures is a big problem for Christie, but not in the sense that most believe. It is not clear that Wildstein has the smoking gun to nail Christie. Wildstein’s lawyer’s letter only says that Wildstien has “some” information that contradicts statements made by the governor in his infamous two hour plus press conference, where Christie attempted to defend himself.

The real problem comes because Wildstein has now signaled to other participants in trafficgate exactly where on the decision making tree, in a prisoner’s dilemma sense, they are.

Here’s a quick refresher course on the prisoner’s dilemma via Wikipedia:

The prisoner’s dilemma (or prisoners’ dilemma) is a canonical example of a game analyzed in game theory that shows why two individuals might not cooperate, even if it appears that it is in their best interests to do so. It was originally framed by Merrill Flood and Melvin Dresher working at RAND in 1950. Albert W. Tucker formalized the game with prison sentence rewards and gave it the name “prisoner’s dilemma” (Poundstone, 1992), presenting it as follows:

Two members of a criminal gang are arrested and imprisoned. Each prisoner is in solitary confinement with no means of speaking to or exchanging messages with the other. The police admit they don’t have enough evidence to convict the pair on the principal charge. They plan to sentence both to a year in prison on a lesser charge. Simultaneously, the police offer each prisoner a Faustian bargain. Each prisoner is given the opportunity either to betray the other, by testifying that the other committed the crime, or to cooperate with the other by remaining silent. Here’s how it goes:

  • If A and B both betray the other, each of them serves 2 years in prison
  • If A betrays B but B remains silent, A will be set free and B will serve 3 years in prison (and vice versa)
  • If A and B both remain silent, both of them will only serve 1 year in prison (on the lesser charge)

It’s implied that the prisoners will have no opportunity to reward or punish their partner other than the prison sentences they get, and that their decision won’t affect their reputation in future. Because betraying a partner offers a greater reward than cooperating with them, all purely rational self-interested prisoners would betray the other, and so the only possible outcome for two purely rational prisoners is for them to betray each other. The interesting part of this result is that pursuing individual reward logically leads both of the prisoners to betray, when they would get a better reward if they both cooperated.

Wildstein’s lawyer’s letter makes clear that option 3, everyone keeping their mouth shut, is off the table. Wildstein has started to talk. Thus, this signals to others involved in trafficgate, such as former Christie deputy chief of staff, Bridget Anne Kelly, whom Christie has fired, that their best option now is to start talking. Kelly is likely to know even more about Christie’s knowledge of trafficgate than Wildstein and she will also likely be able to corroborate Wildstein’s version of events, none of this is good for Christie. Unless Kelly, and others involved in trafficgate are the G. Gordon Liddy-types, Liddy spent 52 months in prison rather than reveal what he knew about Watergate, the floodgates of co-operation with trafficgate investigators has just opened up as a result of Wildstein’s lawyer’s letter.

Reprinted with permission from Economic Policy Journal.

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