Monday, February 6, 2012

The Moral Martingale

Starting tomorrow, I shall blog the story “Where the Nerdlings took Sogwa”, a children’s science-fiction fairy tale, written for my daughter, starring her favorite cat-doll. I’ll blog it at a chapter per day, for nine days.


Until then, here is a speculation about a puzzling political phenomenon, which I call the “Moral Martingale”.


For some time now I have suspected that certain persons and parties choose their beliefs not despite those beliefs being false, but because they are false. I've discounted that theory as over-the-top, for what would be the point of such perversity? I realize that pathological lying is a real phenomenon, but its adaptive quality escaped me.

Then I re-encountered, for the umpteenth time, the phrase "doubling down". In this case it was Huckabee doubling down on death panels. The phrase seemed familiar somehow; I worried at it, then suddenly recognized it as a Martingale.

The Martingale is a betting system, supposedly a sure win, in reality a wash with a small chance of catastrophe. The system is simple. Merely bet on a coin-flip; if you lose the first time, then double your bet and repeat. If that bet loses, then double down again. Continue until you finally win; at that point you will have won, net, the amount of your original bet.

The trouble with a martingale is that your eventual win might be somewhat delayed; by which time your exponentially-growing bets will exceed your ability to pay; so you'd be forced to withdraw with an enormous loss. Most of the time (with probability 1 - 2^-n) you win the original bet, but with probability 2^-n you lose the original bet times 2^n. Therefore the expected value is zero, and the variance is big enough to occasionally bankrupt you utterly. (Or, if you are even more stubborn than that, deliver your descendants into servitude unto the seventh generation. 2^n grows awfully fast.)

So martingales are a deadly gambler-trap; an ethical gambling establishment (if any exist) would ban the practice. "Step away from the table, Mister Loser, NOW.”

Doubling-down is a fatally flawed gambling system, and the Republican party has made that its signature move; the Moral Martingale. Just bet on a morally-dubious proposition; if you lose then bet twice as much of your moral authority on another dubious proposition; and so on until you eventually win back all of your moral authority, plus the original bet. It's a sure thing!

But it isn't. The Moral Martingale leaves its practitioner vulnerable to losing streaks that leave the practitioner morally bankrupt. (Or enslaved unto the seventh generation.) Does that sound familiar?

The same dynamic exists in any stock bubble, such as high-tech and subprime mortgages. You might get away with a martingale once, but repeat it often enough and that losing streak will come. Martingales are a very bad habit indeed.

The Moral Martingale implies the "True Because False" principle; for it is impossible to double down on truth. If you are right, then your payoff is now, a game-ender, and disappointingly finite; but if you are wrong, then the moral martingale continues the game, and promises an exponentially greater payoff later. Therefore, in the moral martingale, truth is a letdown and falsehood is an opportunity; hence false is better than true, and the preferred outcome.

So now I can assert, with good reason, that certain persons and parties believe a falsehood, not despite its being false, but because it is false.

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