Bloomberg Businessweek

Lives vs. Livelihoods? Why Not Have Both?

David Rocke, a mathematician at the University of California at Davis, has been watching President Trump’s pandemic performance with a scholar’s interest. The president’s touting of (and now maybe even using) the rheumatism drug hydroxy-chloroquine, his musing about injecting disinfectants, and his egging on of armed anti-shutdown protesters all look to Rocke like a species of what game theory calls “gambling for resurrection.” The concept is that if you’re behind in a game—say, a presidential campaign—big, bold moves can make sense, even if there’s only a small chance they will pay off. If someone does stumble on a miracle cure for Covid-19, or the national economy somehow gets going by Election Day, then both Trump and the American people win. If the gambles fail, he’s no worse off because he was probably going to lose the election anyway. As for the American people, they could wind up much worse off from his experiments. But if the president has a bad Election Day, that won’t be his problem anymore.

From the perspective of game theory, Trump’s wager is highly rational, says Rocke, who handled the math parts of a 1995 book on gambling for resurrection called Optimal Imperfection? Domestic Uncertainty and Institutions in International Relations, which he wrote with the late political scientist George Downs. On the other hand, Rocke allows that the president may just be winging it. With Trump, he says, “it’s very difficult to tell how much is craft and how much is idiocy.”

The U.S. has gotten into a bad place from which there are no good exits.

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