book review

The Predictioneer's Game:
Using the Logic of Brazen Self-Interest to See and Shape the Future
Bruce Bueno de Mesquita, Random House, 2009, 248 pages
Reviewed By

F or some great Columbus Day reading, I recommend a new book by Bruce Bueno de Mesquita, a professor of politics who uses game theory to predict how people will behave in a crisis. When the players act rationally, says Bueno de Mesquita, game theory can sometimes predict how they will act, if it is employed without bias.

Bias is tough to eliminate. In his plan for achieving peace in the Middle East, Bueno de Mesquita assumes that the main goal of the Palestinians is to achieve an independent state. The evidence does not comport with this. "Land for peace" is the worst possible strategy, as Bueno de Mesquita acknowledges. But contrary to what Bueno de Mesquita believes, the Palestinians don't want wealth or tourism revenues, either; they want to annihilate the Israelis. Unfortunately, the Israelis, for some inscrutable reason, don't want to be annihilated. Result: impasse. The real problem is the ill-defined border between Israel and the Palestinians. The Palestinians will continue to try to push the border westward until convinced it is impossible to do so. I told an Israeli friend of mine many years ago that what they needed to do was not to trade land for peace, but to pick a border and build a fence there. A few years later, Israel came to the same conclusion, and we have seen a spectacular decrease in violence.

His analysis of North Korea also fails to include the possibility of an impasse; even though a plan similar to his was followed, no progress resulted. Counting this as a success merely indicates that he accurately predicted that the U.S. negotiators would act rationally and predictably. Identifying the true objectives and the real players still requires human judgment that is beyond the scope of his theory.

Even though Bueno de Mesquita has a decidedly liberal partisan viewpoint on many issues (for example, he mentions Columbus in a typically unflattering way), unlike so many others in his field he ultimately chooses science over politics. And the science of game theory, despite its limitations, shreds the usual liberal platitudes (and everyone else's platitudes) to pieces. I predict you will read this book, because game theory calculations say that it's in your best interest to do so.