Monday, September 22, 2008


A bunch of guys are playing poker. They amass a huge pile of chips from the losing players, who drop out, but the losers are replaced by new players, bringing new chips, so everyone's stashes keep growing. They begin borrowing money against the value of their chips. Since the game seems like it will go on forever and the piles of chips can only grow, the house is willing to loan them lots and lots of money. Soon, they have borrowed much more money than they could have generated by playing. Some of that money spreads to other tables. Then, they discover that some of their chips are counterfeit -- they've mingled the chips together for so long and in so many ways, no one is sure how many. What do they do? If people find out some of the chips are counterfeit, new players will stop coming to the table. The house has loaned them so much money it no longer has the power to cut the game off -- it would go bankrupt, because lots of good chips would be thrown out with the bad, wiping it out, and taking all the other tables with it. So, everyone puts their heads together and comes up with a plan. They keep it quiet, try to get more new players in the game bringing new money. As long as the game goes on, everything will be OK. No one needs to know about the fake chips, and given time, they can build a stash so big the fake chips will be a tiny fraction of it. Except the new players they bring in bring a lot more counterfeit chips to the table, but the regulars are desperate now, and not very picky. Just keep the game going, and everything will work out, is what they tell themselves. Then the cops knock on the door.

It's almost like a game theory scenario, except it lacks the key element of game theory: choice. Because at the point when the knock on the door comes, they have no choice, except to wish the knock had come a lot sooner.