In my newsletter last week, I wrote about war games and the philosophy behind them (and why the second-to-last episode of Revisionist History this year was one of my favorites). The wargamers’ central creed comes from the Nobel economics prize-winner and all-around genius Thomas Schelling, who changed the landscape of game theory and was known for asking questions like, “When two dynamite trucks meet on a road wide enough for one, who backs up?”
One of Schelling’s principles was that you can’t really prepare for a hypothetical challenge until you actually simulate that challenge and take a test run. I ended my last newsletter with the bigger question I was left with after writing the “War Games” episode: Why don’t we use this principle more often?
In my book Blink, I had a chapter on why it is that virtually every American president of the past 150 years (with very few exceptions) has been a tall, white, middle-aged man. (Usually with a full head of hair!) Why would we pick a leader from a tiny slice of the population?
There are a ton of answers to that question. But one of them is that the mechanisms we use to evaluate the worthiness of candidates tend to favor people who look and sound a certain way—and debates are Exhibit A in mechanisms that favor people who look and sound a certain way.
So what should we do instead?
As I mentioned last week, one of my favorite little games is imagining alternatives to Presidential debates. Not much of what they show us—how a candidate looks on camera, and whether he or she can butt into a conversation to deliver a 15-second pre-scripted catchphrase—tells us anything valuable about the person’s fitness for running a country of 380 million people. We might as well invite the candidates to play one-on-one on a basketball court, and pick the winner that way.
I did a podcast episode last year called “The Powerball Revolution,” in Season 5 of Revisionist History, about the unexpected value of lotteries for picking leaders. This is my #1 favorite idea for fixing American democracy. You have a primary where you winnow down the list of candidates to five or six. And then you put the names in a hat, and—presto—there’s your candidate. Make November lottery month!
And if you’re worried that if we put everything up to chance, we might choose a dud, all I have to say to you is that we often choose duds when we don’t put everything up to chance. (Anyone come to mind?) But I’ll admit. No one except for me and a small group of anarchically minded people goes for this idea.
OK. What about this? The Presidency is a big job that requires a group of talented people who can work well together. Shouldn’t we evaluate how good each team is? At the very least, for example, Presidential debates should always involve both the Presidential candidate and his or her choice for Vice-President. We need to see if they can work well together, don’t we? Of course we do.
But we still need to go a step further, because all we’d be measuring in that instance is whether the two people on a party’s ticket can collectively look good on camera and artfully deliver pre-scripted responses. What we need instead is to have them do something together—an exercise with some relevance to the jobs they are trying to win. When we interview people at Pushkin for an editing job, we make the candidate edit! When an NBA team evaluates players in the draft, they make them scrimmage! And what is the appropriate analogy for a Presidential candidate? A war game, of course.
So here’s my idea. A “war game” commission sets up a scenario. Say: Chinese hackers have crippled the American electrical grid. Or: the stock market has fallen 2,000 points. The more complicated and unusual the better! The war game commission then recruits experts to play each of the key roles in the scenario. Then the candidate and his or her team are invited into the room, informed of the situation and … BOOM! Cameras roll. 200 million Americans watch and we all see how the people running for President handle a crisis. Then what happens the next day? New scenario. And the other presidential team is in action, responding to a crisis in real time.
It should be obvious what this idea resembles, of course. It’s reality TV! But that’s not a bad thing. The whole point of reality television—at least in its proper original form, unscripted and unedited—is that it puts people in situations that reveal at least some aspect of their true character. Why limit the virtues of reality television to the housewives of Atlanta when we really need it for the Oval Office? What we would get, as we watched the candidates and their team work through some unexpected scenario, is something unexpected about them. And the unexpected truth is the most valuable truth of all.
We should take as our mantra the famous adage of Thomas Schelling, one of the fathers of war gaming: “One thing a person cannot do, no matter how rigorous his analysis or heroic his imagination, is to draw up a list of things that would never occur to him.”