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We Can End Poverty, So Why Don’t We?

Almost everyone agrees that poverty is not a good thing.  Almost everyone would like to end poverty.  Almost everyone would benefit from ending poverty.  So why don’t we? 

To find out, let’s look at the problem through the lens of game theory.  In every political cycle, our leaders face a choice: how much should they do to fight poverty, a lot or a little?  If they do a lot, they’ll benefit almost everyone.  But if they do a little, they’ll have resources left over for their other priorities.

They’re not the only players in this game, though.  There’s also the rest of society, which includes all the poor people.  In every political cycle, the rest of society also has a choice: keep the leaders, or throw them out.  This is as true in dictatorships as it is in democracies.

Now, the thing the leaders want least is to get thrown out, but they also want money to spend – otherwise, what good is having power?  Their best choice is to spend just enough money on fighting poverty to keep the rest of society from throwing them out.  In other words, their optimal strategy is appeasement, year after year.

And that’s what we have – a lot of rhetoric matched by very little action.  This combination is usually enough to keep your job, whether you’re the president of Iran, a senator in Congress, or the secretary-general of the United Nations.  The question is, how do we stop the stalemate?

There is only one way.  The rest of society has to take a more farsighted point of view.  They have to realize that being appeased year after year is not in their long-term interest.  They have to send a message that they will not accept the same payoff anymore; in fact, they will accept nothing less than enough action to end poverty.  Anything else, and they’ll throw out their leaders, every time.

This is a standard result in game theory.  In a repeated game like this one, you have to make a credible threat to punish your opponent – and often yourself, too, at the same time – until your opponent will do what you want.  The result is clear, but what will it take for the rest of society to commit to this strategy?

The answer is a popular movement that looks further into the future than just a couple of years, with leaders who are ready for a long and painful fight.  Not by coincidence, it will have a lot in common with the civil rights movements of the last hundred years.  I’m ready to sign up – are you?

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