‘How To Start A World War.’ A Guest Blog By Yossof Sharifi.

Headshot1 - 'How To Start A World War.' A Guest Blog By Yossof Sharifi.


Today we have a guest blog from our contributor and recent podcast guest, S. Yossof Shirifi. Yossof is an experienced attorney who graduated from the S.J. Quinney School of Law at the University of Utah and currently practices at Sharifi and Baron, Attorneys at Law. As we learned in Blacksite Podcast Episode 7, Yossof and his family were refugees of the Soviet-Afghan War. They were given asylum and eventually citizenship in the United States, where he has built a successful life and career.  It’s a fascinating story that you should hear for yourself.

Yossof is currently working on a book featuring hypothetical conversations between Einstein and a “sweet bro.” Here’s an excerpt from his chapter on game theory:

Excerpt from my upcoming book, “Einstein and a Sweet Bro Walk Into a Bar: Interesting Ideas as Explained by Albert Einstein to a Sweet Bro.”


Al puffed at his pipe quietly. “Sitting in this bar watching those two men play darts has reminded me of something in mathematics called Game Theory. Are you familiar, Mike?”

“Yeah, man. Totally. Like, I was playing Halo and this dude online’s like, ‘Dude, where’d you learn to play Halo like that, bro?’ And I’m like, ‘I just know the theory, man. You gotta get the sniper rifle and be up high and shoot haters, ya know?”

“Um… Yes, well, I suppose that could be part of game theory. The concepts at its heart have been around for millennia.”

Mike nodded. “Sweet. But what, like, is it?”

“To express its core idea, it’s best to consider its most famous example, the Prisoner’s Dilemma.” Al took a puff of the pipe and let the smoke whirl around him. “Imagine, and I would never imply that you would do this, but imagine that you and your… bro… are both arrested for murder. If you confess and testify against your bro, the police will let you free after one year in prison. If you do not confess, but they convict you anyway, you will serve life in prison. But if they cannot convict you, because they do not have your confession or your bro’s, you will be set free. Now let us say they offer your bro the same deal. What is your best option?”

“Um… To call a lawyer?”

Al thought a moment, his finger at his lower lip. “It would be best for you to always testify against your bro. To always do the selfish thing. The ideal outcome would be if neither you, nor your bro testified against each other but remained quiet. However, without knowing what your bro is going to do, and with him in the same position not knowing what you are going to do, you must confess and testify against each other. Even though this is not the ideal outcome.”

“So, what you’re saying is it’s good to be selfish? ’Cause I’m down.”

“Exactly. Without knowing what the other person will do, your best option is to confess and testify, and hope they do not confess and testify as well. His option is the same. As such, the police will have two confessions and could convict both of you should they wish. The better option would be to stay quiet, but neither of you know what the other person is going to do and cannot risk that option. In other words, cooperation, without knowledge of what everyone else is doing, leads to worse outcomes. It’s best to be selfish, or in game theory, what’s called ‘defection.’ A rather depressing thought, I must say.

For example, imagine the pledge drives for public broadcasting. Game theory tells us that the best option is not to donate anything because we do not know what everyone else is doing. We could donate and still have the station go bankrupt and our money would have been wasted. A more terrifying prospect is for corporations. Perhaps they save money by allowing feces in our food. Without knowing what all other companies are doing, they should logically not risk being less competitive i.e. spending the money to take the feces out. They should allow the feces in the food if it is cheaper, and they have no knowledge of their competitor’s stance on feces in food.”

“That’s some trippy crap, bro.”

Al packed more tobacco into his pipe. “It is more or less the brainchild of the mathematician John Von Neumann, a Hungarian who lived in the early 20th century. He was an absolute prodigy. Perhaps the most brilliant mathematician that no one has ever heard of. He helped in the development of the atomic bomb, the universal constructor, and the digital computer. But his true passions were games. Particularly chess and poker. During the 1920s, while living in the United States, he developed the field of game theory to describe the structure of poker and chess.

Though he was interested in the games, he believed game theory could give us a valid way to make economic decisions. He believed economics was simply a game in the sense that there were competing interests and multiple unknown variables.”

“So, like, economics is like Halo?”

“I suppose that is one way to look at it. Neumann was hired by the RAND Corporation in the 1950s and game theory was on the minds of their most brilliant scientists. What they were working on was what game theory had to say about the Cold War and the arms race. Consider the arms race and atomic weaponry, for example.

The United States had four options when it came to building our nuclear stockpile: We could not build more atomic weapons, and if the Soviet Union didn’t either, then neither country would be threatened. Or we could build up our weapons and the Soviet Union could not, in which case we could destroy them. Or we could not build and the Soviet Union could, in which case they could destroy us. Or we could both build our nuclear arsenals, in which case we would destroy not only ourselves, but the rest of the world with us.”

“Whoa… So, like, did we destroy ourselves?”

“No… We survived.”

Mike smiled. “That’s freaking sweet.”

“Indeed. But you see the problem, yes? The best option for the world would be for the United States not to build our nuclear arsenal and have the Soviet Union do the same. But we could not do that because we did not know what the Soviets would do. As such, the best choice for both the Soviet Union and the United States was to build up our nuclear arsenals, even though it could very easily have destroyed the entire planet.”

Mike nodded. “Hey, can we get some nachos?”

“Certainly.” Al signaled to the waitress and placed the order. Mike’s smile now went from ear to ear and seemed permanently affixed to his face. “Now, where was I? Ah yes, game theory. So you can see that this particular game, the Prisoner’s Dilemma, indicates that cooperation is always advantageous, but acting toward cooperation instead of selfishly is always the worst choice for each player. Neumann was disheartened by this and abandoned his research in the field, instead focusing almost exclusively on ‘zero-sum games.’”

“Hm, like beer pong?”

“Um… Yes, I suppose that’s correct. There are games like poker… and beer pong… in which the winner takes all. For one person to advance, the other person playing the game must suffer. Have you seen the movie A Beautiful Mind?”

“Yes! That movie was freaking awesome. I had no idea that dude that was with Jim Carrey in that movie about the bubble wasn’t a real dude.”

“Yes, well, the other man, Russell Crowe’s character, was based on a real mathematician. John Nash. Nash was a colleague of Neumann and thought that game theory should extend to non-zero-sum games. He added something to it that Neumann hadn’t thought of: What if you play the game a hundred times instead of once? This is much closer to real life where we do not have a Prisoner’s Dilemma situation once but over and over. Like dealing with a rude grocer every week for example. What game theory told us before Nash was that it was always good to be rude to a grocer that was rude to you previously, simply because you did not know if he would be rude. And the worst outcome for you would be for you to be nice and have the grocer be rude. Better then, for you to be rude just in case.”

“But Nash said there is a way out of this dilemma where cooperation seems impossible. You ‘teach’ the other person to cooperate. So if you are faced with a potentially rude grocer, you are initially nice to them. And then, if they are rude, you are rude back. Then next time, they may think that you will treat them how they treat you. But you always start out nice. Or in game theory terms, you always start out cooperating and then only defect if the opposing party does.

In our nuclear arms race example, the United States could have not developed weapons initially. And then if the Soviets began developing them, we would meet their aggression with development. But if they stopped or slowed down, we would stop or slow down. In this way, we ‘teach’ them how to be cooperative and reach better outcomes for all.”

The nachos came and Al watched in amazement as Mike shoved two handfuls of chips and cheese in his mouth. “So,” he said with a mouthful of food, “we should be nice?”

“Yes. At first, you should always cooperate and be nice. And then, you should treat others how they treat you to teach them to be nice. It’s called ‘tit for tat.’ This is the ultimate lesson of game theory, and is the basis of many fields such as negotiation theory and applied ethics. But game theory also can apply to evolution, physics and chemistry. Perhaps we can discuss that another time, when you’re not so distracted by the nachos.”

“One more question,” he said through a ball of nachos in his mouth. “So like what if some leader dude wanted to not fight? He should be nice?”

“Precisely. Let us say that a leader, the President of the United States for example, feels that tension is developing between the U.S. and other nations. Let us just pick some random nations such as Russia, Syria, China and North Korea. To avoid war, the president would want to initially reduce the size of the military and make overt gestures of peace to these nations. Then, if these nations respond in kind, the potential for war would plummet. If the nations responded with aggressive gestures, and begin ramping up their military, then the President should respond in kind to that gesture and begin increasing the size of our military.

“In this way, we would teach the other nations that we will respond how they respond. Since we are the most powerful nation on earth, they would not willingly wish to go to war, and they would then respond by deescalating their military buildup, in which case we would do the same. Then we could achieve what is known as ‘Nash equilibrium.’ Nash equilibrium is simply a state where none of the players in a game gain any advantage in changing strategy. They must simply maintain their current strategy until another player chooses to change theirs. In layman’s terms, Nash equilibrium is a state of peace where war benefits no one. And we can achieve international peace with this approach, using theories developed by a lone scientist playing poker seven decades ago. Quite remarkable, isn’t it?”

Mike thought a moment. “But, what if like, the president got all aggressive?”

“That luckily would not happen. You see, if a president were to make overt aggressive gestures, and begin building up the military, China, Syria, North Korea, Russia and most other nations, even our allies such as Germany and France, must defect and begin building up their military, their nuclear arsenal, and make preparations for war. Since they do not know our president’s intentions other than a larger military and aggressive gestures, they must defect to protect themselves. If all nations begin defecting, Nash equilibrium would break down, and we would begin the process of another World War.”


Al nodded. “Precisely. You see, when Hitler invaded Czechoslovakia, the proper response to his aggression was a buildup of the military and a show of aggression from the allies. This would have shown him that his aggression would be met with aggression, and since he was not prepared yet for a World War, he would have had no choice but to retreat. Instead, the allies allowed him to keep accelerating his aggression, signing peace treaty after peace treaty, which Hitler continued to break. Nash equilibrium was broken with the invasion of Czechoslovakia, but the war-weary allies did not recognize it, and by the time Hitler invaded Poland, it was too late to avert war.”

“World War I was much the same in that Serbia, Germany, Austria-Hungary, France, Russia, Britain, Belgium, Japan and the United States all had attained Nash equilibrium, and Austria-Hungry broke equilibrium by declaring war on Serbia. This set off a chain reaction where each nation had to deflect as none knew what the others’ stance on war would be. That is simply how World Wars begin: Nash equilibrium is broken, and each nation deflects. War will soon follow.”

“Dude, that’s crazy.”

“It is both crazy and unfortunate. As I famously said once, ‘I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.’ But again, this is all speculation. The President of the United States is the most powerful position in history. The American public would not simply bestow such a position on any person that did not have intricate knowledge of game theory, Nash equilibrium and international diplomacy. They would clearly recognize how easily we can fall into another World War and would therefore always choose the most qualified candidate, even if they had to set certain issues they cared about aside to do so.”

Mike nodded. “Makes sense I guess. I mean, no one would want to choose another World War, right?”

“Indeed. Now, enough talk, hand me some nachos, please.”



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