Two Weeks to Go: The Roulette Wheel

Jon explores the gambles underpinning John Key and Helen Clark's electoral strategies and says it's no good blaming the roulette wheel if we place all our money on only one number.

I’ve long had a theory about my own vices. I call it the ‘pillow theory'. If you punch a pillow in one spot it tends to balloon out somewhere else. So too with vices. Give up smoking and, hey presto, another vice quickly fills the void. The trick, I’ve learned, is to keep one’s vices in some sort of equilibrium. Easier said than done of course, and as someone who has just fallen off the non-smoking wagon I can hardly elevate myself as a role model for balance.

My plea for mitigation from my wife’s wrath is that I’m a casualty of politics. I’ve also gilded the lily by saying that at least I haven’t descended into other forms of moral turpitude, making the basic case that smoking is the lesser of several worse evils my weak soul could succumb to. The Chief Justice of the Johansson Supreme Court has reserved her judgement until after election night.

One of these more pernicious vices I might have gravitated to is gambling. Luckily I’ve never been attracted to it, or it to me. On my yearly excursion to the races, my sophisticated system is to gamble on the horse with the most political-sounding name. I don’t recommend this system to others as their path to economic liberation.

At a casino I only play one game, roulette. Like Fitz, the tortured psychologist in Cracker, I find an exquisite freedom in throwing it all on a number and, for the time it takes for the ball to settle, enjoying the utter randomness of fate.

Roulette has another virtue. It is a release from the tedium of sameness and patterns that make our lives too orderly, too predictable. The Danish existentialist Kierkegaard understood this well, for as he once wrote:

"The gods were bored so they created man. Adam was bored so they created Eve. Adam and Eve were bored together, and then Adam and Eve and Cain and Abel were bored en famille. The peoples of the world grew in number and they were bored en masse. Then the nations of the world were scattered over the earth and they continued to be bored."

That vortex of flux, as the roulette ball flirts with its ultimate destination, is precisely where our election is situated with the business-end of the campaign about to begin.

John Key has, like me, gambled all his chips on the one number, which is the party vote share National needs to, if not govern alone, then to get very close to it. Helen Clark, in contrast, has covered her electoral bets. She has spread them among several numbers, believing she has a better chance of winning with this strategy.

Key has, moreover, tried to frame his opponent’s strategy as monstrous. In this he has some giddy roulette folklore to back him up. Roulette wheels are numbered 1 to 36 and if you add them up they equal 666, the number of the beast. Graphics of the multi-headed Labour-led hydra that are popping up all over the blogosphere are, therefore, faithfully replicating an ancient tradition.

They conjure up an image from the Book of Revelations:

‘And I stood upon the sand of the sea, and saw a beast rise up out of the sea, having seven heads and ten horns, and upon his horns ten crowns, and upon his heads the name of blasphemy.’

The nation’s editorial writers have lamely followed variations to this theme; that somehow it’s blasphemous for National to have the election stolen from its grasp if it out-polls Labour but can’t form a government.

Key’s gamble has so far been underpinned by his syndicate of voters trusting his gambling instincts. Ruling out Douglas and ruling out Winston seemed a luxury he could afford while bloated poll support continued month after month.

But now that polls begin to narrow the roulette ball in our metaphor can be likened to this unfolding economic calamity that is running counter-cyclical to the fundamental change gravity that preceded it. Our campaign is in flux.

If National continues to slide in those opinion polls that are capable of recording movement, then the gambler’s luck will run out and we will not be facing one hydra but, instead, will have one on either side of the political divide. Meanwhile, Clark continues to play the table. She’s been at it for years and has previously banked tidy profits by expertly spreading her risk by anticipating and accommodating the strategies of her rivals.

This leads me to a classic piece of game theory, the Nash equilibrium. In Hollywood’s version of it, Russell Crowe’s star-turn in A Beautiful Mind, Nash is sitting in a bar with three of his peers. Four women of varying beauty enter the bar and while each man is drawn to the best looking woman a light bulb goes off in Nash’s mind.

He figures that even in games of love and war his group of mates can maximize their overall chances of happiness by modifying their amorous ambitions so that all might achieve blissful relations. Think of the reverse: they attack each other and only the last man standing has a chance, maybe.

This is not a bad way of understanding our politics under MMP. Labour and its various coalition and support partners have over the course of three terms modified their policy ambitions so that each party can advance its most important ones, while having cognizance of the strategies of its allies.

National, in contrast, has preferred its own company and strived to govern alone so that it can dominate in its desperately sought relationship with power. It says, I’m the best looking and I want it all.

Which approach will succeed? If during the end-game of this campaign we see ever-narrowing polls then Clark’s strategy will prove the superior one. Only under the conditions of National maintaining a huge poll lead can it hope to win. If the election delivers a close result, irrespective or which of National or Labour wins the head-to-head contest, Clark will have proved the shrewder gambler.

And if the unthinkable happens it’s no use blaming MMP; that’d be very shallow analysis. The rules of our electoral system are given and known before the game begins. MMP is not responsible for the strategies various players’ choose to employ. And if National somehow contrives to lose this unlosable election, we can only hope that the Herald’s and other editorial writers will at least address the skill of our political gamblers, or singular lack thereof, instead of railing against the roulette wheel.

As for me, if I’m still smoking by the Monday after we vote, I’ll be one of the first casualties in this year’s gambler’s election, irrespective of the result. And in which case I might just call up John Key and take him down to the Sky City casino to play some roulette. We’ll both have nothing else to do.