I suggest a new strategy, R2. Let the Wookiee win.C3PO

Jeff Bezos tells a story about how he gave his grandmother a hard time about smoking until she cried, and his grandfather took him aside and said, “You are going to figure out one day, that’s it’s harder to be kind than to be clever.”

Interestingly, Bill Gates has a similar story about being taken to a psychologist as a child because he was being disruptive. He told the psychologist that he thought it was unfair that he had to live by illogical rules and he deserved to win the argument with his parents. The psychologist told him kids always win in the end because they outlive their parents and he should cut his parents a break.

The lesson here is: don’t focus so much on winning the game that you forget the meta-game. And there is always a meta-game. Don’t miss the big picture. And there is always a bigger picture.

The dumb bear runs away when you jangle your keys. The smart bear gives you a look that says, you idiot, those are just keys. And keeps coming back messing with your trash cans and your car and your house. And the smart bear gets shot.

There’s a saying on Wall Street, “always leave something on the table.” The casino will do their level best to kill you at the tables, but they’ll do it with a smile and a free drink and give you 30% back in comps to keep you coming. Acting like it’s just a big party and we’re all in this for a good time goes a long way, even for a fundamentally extractive business.

The worst people to deal with on Wall Street (or anywhere) are the ones who aren’t looking to generate more value than they extract, are only looking for an angle, to make maximum profit while blowing up the relationship and moving on.

In the US we’ve become really good at prospering in the short run while losing the meta-game. The financial crisis was a moral crisis: make the liar loans, make them look AAA, hit the numbers, get the bonus. And then the whole thing blows up.

People should think more about the meta-game. Libertarians think, you give people freedom, that solves everything. Left-wingers think the right policy directive can achieve any outcome. It would be better to think more about engineering the meta-game of markets for goods and services, markets of ideas, so they work effectively and maximize freedom.1

Facebook and Google are re-engineering society. But they can’t really admit it. They’re not supposed to measure the consequences their designs have in the real world. There has to be a pretense that it all happens organically and driven by the free choices of the users. Otherwise the right-wingers go nuts that they are being censored and manipulated. And the left-wingers go nuts that corporations are privatizing and monetizing civil society and data.

The founding fathers knew that freedom works only to the extent people are decent, and they had to create a form of government and institutions that allowed society to function while preserving the maximum amount of freedom. We seem to have forgot that and take maximalist positions on freedom and/or achieving objectives regardless of the Constitution, sometimes at the same time. Instead of sophistic rhetoric and partisan talking points, it would be better to start talking about engineering our institutions and decent society, and creating win-win games.

Trump is the king of approaching everything as win/lose and losing the meta-game. You make a lot of seemingly great deals with other peoples’ money, take big bucks risk-free to attach your name to Trump University, then one day you’re broke and exposed as a flim-flam artist. Not having skin in the game makes you the worst kind of dealmaker. And in the long run gives you the worst kind of skin in the game.

You can break the deals you don’t like, make the base happy, undo an Obama signature initiative, get a sweet payoff from Sheldon Adelson and Sheikh MBZ. But you can’t simultaneously pursuing a nearly-identical deal and expect counterparties to trust you and act in good faith). Deport veterans, make a torturer CIA chief, pander to the white supremacists, and maybe you think you’re triggering your opponents and putting them on the back foot, but you’re losing the meta-game.

Acting decently isn’t some rose-colored pie-in-the-sky do-gooder dream world. Ethical conduct is the ultimate meta-game. A lot of US power exisits because we (mostly) tried to act decently, be a beacon of stability, freedom and democracy, create and support multilateral institutions. And we’re killing the goose that laid the golden egg.

So much winning. We’re not getting bored, that’s for sure. But we’re losing the meta-game. Bigly.

1Maybe they do? Maybe a lot of libertarianism is just a meta-game for powerful interests wanting the freedom to rig the game to give them even more power and wealth? Maybe a lot of egalitarianism is a meta-game ivory-tower philosophers leverage to grab power? If so, all the more reason people need to think about the meta-games.