This is the final version of Chapter 2 of the Prisoner's Dilemma
Lilly Pond Camping Site
North of Moosehead Lake, Maine
“Dad! Come quick! Look!” Eight year-old Sean Michaels grabbed his father and pulled him to the edge of the pond as he brushed back some hair that the evening breeze had blown. He was a gangly child, tall with dark hair and the blue eyes of his father.
John Michaels left the campfire where he had been preparing the evening meal and walked a few feet to the edge of Lilly Pond. On the other side of the 125-foot wide pond stood a magnificent buck deer. Its antlers spread to at least four feet. Michaels, tall and about thirty-eight with an angular face, waved for his friend, Tom Dryer, and Tom’s son, George, to come and look. The four stood there in awe as the animal dipped its head to the water.
“Quiet,” whispered Michaels to the others. “We don’t want to scare him away.” Lilly Pond was named for its green lilly pads that floated over three-quarters of the pond. At this time of the day, early twilight, deer often came to drink from the pond, but never had they seen such a beautiful animal here.
“I wonder what made him come this far down from the mountains,” puzzled Tom, “Usually animals like this stay farther up in the mountains. We’ve seen plenty of deer but they’re usually the smaller ones that seem tamer.”
For the last three years the men and their sons had spent a week vacationing at Lilly Pond, to go hiking, canoeing, and swimming. Tom, a university economics professor, was a colleague of Michaels who taught American history at the same school. Tom had discovered Lilly Pond while vacationing with his family in the backwoods of Maine four years ago and the two men and their sons had been coming back ever since. The campsite included a built-in fire pit and a canoe that presently was pulled up on the shore.
Lilly Pond was quiet, and mystical. It was the kind of place where even the normally boisterous Sean and George maintained a quiet demeanor. At this time of day there was a pronounced sense of silent reverence. One could sit staring at the pine-covered mountains on the opposite shore for hours.
Between the large green pads one could see the ripple of the water’s surface as a fish tried to dine on insects floating on the water. Occasionally, one would jump out to try his luck at dinner. The pond grew darker as the sun slowly sank behind the western mountains. The crickets began their nightly singing and the peepers began their chanting. Soon a chorus of night sounds filled the evening. A star appeared in the rapidly dimming skies. There was a woodsy smell of damp pine.
The buck turned away and the four reluctantly returned to their campfire a few feet behind them. Michaels continued preparing the evening meal as the boys gathered firewood and dropped it next to the fire pit. Tom straightened up the camp and organized the equipment.
After a meal of freshly caught trout and fresh-roasted corn-on-the-cob that they had purchased at the general store five miles down the road, they sat contentedly for a few minutes staring at the flames. “Well, I think it’s time for the marshmallows.” Tom stood and walked to the chest where the food was stored in a bear-proof container. He pulled out a bag of marshmallows and grabbed four sticks for roasting them. “Nothing like toasted marshmallows,” he said.
“Dad,” said George, “tell us about some of the stuff you used to do in school when you were as old as us. But make sure it is something different; not the same old stories.” George was a tall slim child with brown eyes and light brown hair.
“Well, I don’t know,” teased Tom. “I don’t think your mom would be happy. You know how she feels about my war stories. Not a good example.” Tom was known for his antics while in school.
“Aw, come on.” The two boys leaned eagerly forward. “Please! We won’t tell.”
“What do you think, John?” Tom looked at John.
“Well, you know; it is just us guys; and I guess we can keep a few secrets from the women.”
“OK, guys, but remember it is just between us, right?”
“Right!” George grinned in anticipation.
“Yeah, just between us,” answered Sean.
“Well, once when I was in sixth-grade, the guys had what would later be called ‘The Great Spitball Fight.’ Every time the teacher turned her back a barrage of spitballs would fly across the room.”
“Cool!” said the two boys.
“Of course we don’t want you guys copying this,” said Michaels.
“Of course not!” replied George with a grin. “Wouldn’t think of it.”
“Anyway, what started out as a few guys throwing a spitball now and then across the room escalated. We would build up supplies of them and hide them in our desks. Then it got more formal. Soon we were forming teams.”
“As soon as the teacher’s back was turned, we let loose a salvo of spitballs. It looked like snow,” said Tom grinning. “That’s when we got caught.”
“What happened?” asked the boys.
“Unfortunately, one particularly gooey one hit Emily. It stuck in her hair. We always called Emily ‘Miss Priss.’”
“What happened then?”
“She was always playing with her hair, twisting and tying it up. It stayed stuck in her hair for quite awhile. Then she reached back with her hands to brush her hair. As soon as she felt it and pulled it out, she yelled, ‘Ooh! Gross! Yuck!’ The teacher turned around to see what all the fuss was about. ‘Miss Priss’ squealed on us. ‘Those guys have been throwing spitballs for three weeks,’ she said.
“The teacher was really mad. We had detention for a week and had to have our parents come in for a school conference. It was worth it though.”
All the guys laughed. “I can see “Miss Priss’ now,” said George.
“You know,” said John, “some of the things we used to do as kids could get you thrown in jail now. It’s a shame that kids can’t be kids anymore. Whatever happened to innocent fun?”
Tom added, “If you bring a plastic knife in your lunch to spread your peanut butter on your sandwich, the next thing you know the principal calls in the cops.”
Michaels mused. “You know,” he said, “that escalation of the spitballs is a good example of what we call the tragedy of the commons.”
“What’s the tragedy of the commons?” asked Sean.
Michaels, who loved to teach, delighted in the opportunity to explain things to his son. “The easiest way to explain it is to use the spitball story. Suppose you were on a team in a spitball war. Imagine if your team had a supply of 100 spitballs. You knew that the other team also had 100 spitballs. If you engaged in the spitball war who would win?”
“Neither side,” said George. “The teams would balance out. It would be an even fight. Uncle John, how is that the tragedy of the commons?”
“Listen, here is how it works. Each team has exactly 100 spitballs. The two sides are evenly matched. What if you learned that the other team had made 25 extra spitballs? Who would win? What would you do?”
“First, we’d make 25 more spitballs; maybe we’d even make more, say 50 more spitballs.”
“Now imagine the other team finds out you made all those extra spitballs. What do you think they would do?”
“They’d probably match us and maybe even make more.”
“That is what is called the tragedy of the commons. Each side is forced to make more and more spitballs trying to beat the other team. Let’s use your imagination. Suppose you made so many spitballs that you ran out of paper. You used up all the paper in the class, and then all the paper in the school. And then all the paper in the town. And so on.”
“But that didn’t happen,” said Sean.
“No it didn’t,” said Tom. “And for a very good reason. First, we got caught. Second we would never have enough resources to buy all the paper in the town. There were many reasons why that didn’t happen. But in theory it could have happened and almost did back in the days of the Cold War.”
“What do you mean?” asked Sean.
“You remember from your history class that the United States and Russia—back then it was called the Soviet Union—were engaged in a war very much like your spitball war. Remember that you said you would keep making more and more spitballs to match the other team? Well, the United States and Russia did the same thing. If we built new and more advanced nuclear weapons, the Soviets would match us and make even more. Then we’d build more. Soon we had more than enough weapons to destroy the world many times over.”
“That’s crazy!” said George.
“Yes, it was crazy. But we and the Soviets were caught in a system that had spun out of control.”
“But that war didn’t happen either,” said Sean.
“No, fortunately it didn’t. The Soviet Union collapsed in the early 1990s, thank God, but many people were scared that it might happen.”
“Well, guys,” said Tom, “it’s time to hit the sack. We have a three hour hike up to Twin Ponds tomorrow and you need to get to sleep.”
“Yeah, I know. I love going up there,” said George.
After the boys had settled in their tent, Michaels and Dryer kept talking by the fire, which had burned down to a low glow. “You know,” said Dryer, “the tragedy of the commons is a great metaphor to explain how people get caught up in systems that make them work against their own long-term self-interest. And not only self-interest, but also community interest.”
“Yes, I discuss it a lot in class. I guess that’s why I’m such a great teacher,” said Michaels grinning.
“Well, don’t rest on your laurels too much. Two years ago you almost lost your job. Remember when Samuel Reed almost got you kicked out of teaching at the University?”
Michaels smiled. He had gone to Ireland to see if he could get a second citizenship. Reed had almost made him persona non grata here in the US.
“I always spend time talking about the tragedy of the commons to my history classes.” Michaels continued. “My favorite example is the pasture. Imagine a pasture that can hold 100 cows. Ten farmers are able to support ten cows each.
“Year after year the pasture replenishes itself supporting the 100 cows. Now imagine that Farmer A figures that he can increase his milk production ten-percent if he adds one cow. Now the pasture is supporting 101 cows. At first no one notices. Finally Farmer B sees that A has an extra cow and realizes that he is at an economic disadvantage. His milk is worth less. So he adds a cow. Then farmer C does the same thing and D and so on. Soon there are 110 cows in the commons. The commons begins to deteriorate. Soon the commons is worn out and every farmer loses.
“This metaphor applies to the stock market, the legal profession and any other situation where there is a win-lose possibility. You know, this sub-prime lending crisis is a perfect example of that.”
“What do you think the reaction of Annemarie and Janet will be when they find out we told the spitball story?” asked Michaels.
“Why? Are you worried?”
“Well I imagine Annemarie will probably roll her eyes and make some comment about male testosterone.”
“And Janet will say something to Sean about immature men and not to follow our example. Then they’ll commiserate by going shopping.”