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March 9, 2003
David Warsh, Proprietor


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Sorin, Rapped

The president of the Game Theory Society knew he had a problem when the editor of one of the society’s flagship journals turned up last year as a signatory to a French-led petition urging a boycott of scientific institutions in Israel in protest of Israeli policy in Palestine.

Campaigning for an international academic embargo of Israel was the organization Just Peace in the Near-East.

Sylvain Sorin, professor at the Pierre and Marie Curie University in Paris and editor of the International Journal of Game Theory, signed up. So did another 150 or so professors in France, half as many in the United Kingdom and another 100 academicians or so around the world.

But strategic behavior is a major preoccupation in Israeli universities. The community of game theorists is as dense there as anywhere in the world. And not surprisingly, society president Robert Aumann of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem was bombarded with demands from his countrymen that he do something.

What he did was to quietly farm out the controversy to Nobel laureate Reinhard Selten in Germany for an opinion. For most of last year the problem simmered, as various intermediaries negotiated with Sorin over what how he was and was not prepared to cooperate with Israeli scientists.

(Sorin did not respond to e-mail requests for comment. This account was pieced together in conversations with other members, each of whom expressed a preference for anonymity.)

Then on December 1, Aumann (with his vice president Ehud Kalai of Northwestern University and secretary/treasurer Eric van Damme of Tilburg University in the Netherlands) wrote the 34 members of the council to say that he had asked the editor for his resignation.

Sorin angrily submitted it. He returned to his work at the Laboratoire d’Econometrie of the Ecole Polytechnique in Paris.

Aumann quoted Selten’s letter of opinion — “…too many Israeli game theorists feel that they cannot cooperate with somebody who signed the boycott of Israeli scientific institutions, even if he assures us that this does not interfere with his editorial duties.”

But if 15 of the 34 members of the Society’s governing council dissented from his decision, he said, he would put the matter to the council for a vote. (Loosely modeled on the Econometric Society, the Game Theory Society has an inner circle of 34 “council” members and a general membership of around 200 persons.)

Then on December 5, Ariel Rubinstein of Tel Aviv and Princeton Universities, a distinguished theorist in his own right, wrote an open letter to the officers of the society and members of its council.

Even though he firmly opposed the boycott, Rubinstein wrote — firmly opposed as well the Israeli occupation of the West Bank which elicited it — he considered the decision to fire Sorin “utterly wrong.”

“I am sure about the good intentions of all the players in this affair, even if the outcome is tragic and unacceptable. Very personally, I feel I should not be a member of an academic society that uses its weight to pressure a person to change his mind.” And with that he resigned, both from the society and from his associate journal editorship.

Rubinstein’s letter failed to rally opinion. Only five votes in opposition to Aumann were given voice. And last month William Thomson of the University of Rochester was appointed the new editor of the International Journal of Game Theory.

The Game Theory Society was founded only in 1999, to promote the interests of discipline which, in the fifty years since it emerged as a distinctive field, often has been overshadowed by the economists’ much older general equilibrium theory. Each regularly vies to see who will come out on top at the end of the next period of intellectual accounting, always with interesting results.

The story of the strategists who could not agree among themselves on appropriate procedure is a sad one, but not entirely surprising in a world in which larger dilemmas of the same sort are unfolding daily.

True, as some members say, Aumann could have consulted more widely among his council. He could have built greater consensus for his move and perhaps even kept the membership intact. But then the affair wouldn’t have been so quickly and quietly resolved.

* * *

“WASHINGTON’S BEST-KEPT SECRET,” according to Gary Ruskin and Steve Katz, is the Congressional Research Service.

They may be right. As close as you can get to the CRS on the Web is the description on its employment opportunities page.

The Central Intelligence Agency, the Defense Intelligence Agency and the National Security Agency are all much more forthcoming about themselves.

Precisely for that reason, a report on this shadowy governmental research organization by Ruskin and Katz makes interesting reading. It was published last month by the Project on Government Oversight

The CRS is an office within the Library of Congress. It employs nearly 700 employees who, with a budget of more than $81 million, turn out a steady stream of high-quality non-partisan research for Congress and its committees, analyzing legislation and providing background research for policy makers.

Its Legislative Information Service website provides members of Congress and their staffs with the most up-to-date source of information on the status of legislation on Capitol Hill, offering on-line bill summaries, comparisons, full texts of legislation, public laws, committee reports, hearing transcripts, the Congressional Record and many other documents — all highly searchable.

Yet try to get your hands on a copy of recent reports including, say, “Across-the-Board Tax Cuts: Economic Issues” or “Iraq: Divergent Views on Military Action.”

Oh, you can get them, if you know exactly what to ask for. Most members of Congress will procure written documents for constituents free of charge.

Private companies, including Westlaw and Lexis, regularly send representatives to Congressional offices to collect new CRS reports in order to place them in their data bases and offer them for sale, according to Ruskin and Katz. And Penny Hill Press offers to sell you a copy of any CRS report for $29.95 — $7.95 if you are a subscriber.

Moreover, the 150 or so former members of Congress who are now registered lobbyists can request any current CRS reports they want, and even get limited reference assistance from its librarians.

If you try to go to the CRS Website, you will find that you are “not authorized to view this page.” Try to punch up the LIS site and you will be automatically shunted to www.thomas.gov, the public government website where the premium service isn’t mentioned and the search function is even more rudimentary than the information.

The CRS gives many reasons why it prefers to operate in secrecy. Some have to do with the Speech or Debate Clause protections under which its writers operate. (This immunity from law suits is extended to members of Congress and those who work for them.)

Others have to do with the risk of copyright infringement. (Certain commercial databases are licensed to the LIS, including the Associated Press news wire and the National Journal magazine.) Still other problems include peer pressure, cost considerations and the potential loss to Members of a source of largesse.

No wonder then that Senators John McCain (R-Ariz) and Patrick Leahy (D-Vt) have introduced a bill that would permit the public the same easy access to CRS and LIS Websites that Members and their staffs now enjoy.

A similar measure was stalled last year by institutional resistance, mainly at the Library of Congress. Leahy and McCain say they have addressed these concerns, and now the measure is back. The CRS director would be permitted to protect copyrighted material, and withhold the names of authors of CRS reports.

What can you do? Well, you could write a short email to your senator or representative. Urge her or him to support the bill. Or you could check out the Project on Government Oversight.

POGO. as it is known to insiders, is another of Washington’s well-kept secrets, the brain-child of Dina Rasor, herself a disciple of ’70s whistleblower Ernest Fitzgerald. Initially the non-profit organization specialized in defense spending waste, fraud and abuse — remember the $7,600 coffee-maker and the $436 hammer? They have been broadening their mission and sharpening their analysis ever since.

* * *

IT WAS FIFTY YEARS AGO last week that Joseph Stalin died. He was 73 years old, and may well have been poisoned by one or more of his closest aides during a drunken dinner at his dacha.

The Financial Times commemorated the occasion with a several stories in its excellent Weekend section, including an interview with Robert Conquest, the independent scholar who, perhaps second only to Alexander Solzhenitsyn, documented the 15 million deaths ordered by Stalin and so established the rough moral equivalence of the Russian dictator with Adolf Hitler.

Myself, I celebrated by watching Michael Radford’s superb film version of George Orwell’s novel 1984, which actually appeared in 1984, and thus has overtones of the repressions in Argentina and Chile as well as Germany and Russia. It recreates with remarkable fidelity the fearful climate in which Orwell wrote. It also happened to be Richard Burton’s last movie.

But it was The New York Times that found some real news about Stalin. It marked the anniversary of his death by printing a dispatch from its Moscow correspondent, Michael Wines, about a book scheduled to appear in Russia later this month.

“Stalin’s Last Crime,” by Vladimer Naumov and Jonathan Brent, will argue that the evidence suggests that Stalin was killed by his aides shortly after he had ordered the construction of four enormous new prison camps — and on the eve of preparations in the Soviet Far East for a war along the United States’ Pacific coast.

Previously secret documents are produced as evidence that Stalin (Wines writes) “was preparing to add a new dimension to the alleged American conspiracy known as the Doctor’s Plot” — a dimension that presumably quickly could have turned into World War Three.

“I am told that the only case when the two sides were on the verge of war was the Cuban crisis,” Naumov told Wines. “But I think this was the first case. And this time that we were on the verge of war was even more dangerous,” he said, because nuclear weapons might easily have been employed.

Naumov is a respected historian of the former Soviet Union. Brent is editorial director of Yale University Press and overseer of its remarkable 25-volume series, “The Annals of Communism.” In due course, Yale will publish “Stalin’s Last Crime” in the United States. Doubtless it will cause a considerable stir.

The early history of the Cold War is still poorly understood — even locally, much less globally. The bold but careful Yale project is a singular contribution to the slowly growing clarity.

* * *

THE FRENCH HAVE A WORD FOR IT: hyperpuissance, meaning the American tendency to throw its weight around in the matter of Iraq. The Americans, of course, have a joke. They have a lot of them. This one is usually attributed to Gen. Norman Schwartzkopf, US commander during the First Gulf War.

“Going to war without France,” he says, “is like going deer hunting without your accordion.”

It is a good joke. It’s an even better illustration, though, of the power of humor to put down, to dismiss, even to suppress discussion. Relentless humor is almost as coercive as the Paix Juste boycott Israel petition, or the fierce demands of the Israeli game theorists that the journal editor be fired.

It is possible to support the general aims of US policy towards Iraq — I do — and still think that the world is better for the reservations that the French have expressed. All those jokes making the rounds, and much more besides, are another example of American hyperpuissance.

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