Monday, May 7, 2007

Affirmative Action and Poker: an allegory

I grew up a military brat and so it wasn't unusual to find myself living in bizarre places. When I was 10 I lived in Ft. Leavenworth, Kansas- the home of one of the largest prisons in the US- while my dad attended CGSC for the military (command general staff college.) I remember getting my haircut by inmates because it was only 5 bucks, and how when a prisoner had escaped there'd be these alerts that asked people in the area to lock their doors and turn their lights off until the person was apprehended. One of my fondest and most vivid memories at the time though, was when my dad came home and told me about a presentation on Affirmative Action given by the battalion commander, General Archipov (who was white.)*

As should surprise no one at all, the military is a conservative institution. In Ft. Leavenworth there was noticeable resentment for some of the black officers who were seen as having attained their status unfairly. Because of this, Archipov decided to present to the students (including my dad) a vivid and illuminating presentation to explain affirmative action. I have no doubt that nearly everyone who was a part of this (and hopefully this is still ongoing) never saw affirmative action in the same light.

The students walked into the class and were told they'd be playing poker for fun. 4 students sat at the table with one superior officer who was the all-time dealer. It was a normal game of 5 card draw poker for chips that could be exchanged for real-money, and all of the students were given $100 in chips. There were only two special rules:

  1. The dealer could request to see your cards and you had to comply, but you could not see his.
  2. The dealer could decide which hand won and which hand lost as he saw fit.
With that, the superior officers and Archipov left the room. The officers were not permitted to speak, and being military officers with plenty of experience under their belt they knew how to deal with total horseshit and say nothing about it. So what happened next is exactly as you think; the dealers won every single hand and their pile of chips was dramatically increasing. After a while the superiors walk back in the room, feigning surprise over how badly the dealers are winning. Archipov, in his best serious voice, says "Can anyone explain to me what's going on?" All of the students raise their hands and he calls on one Staff Sergent Michaels.

Staff Sergent Michaels: "Well sir, the dealer is simply allowed to decide who wins and who loses! And, further..."

General Archipov: "Woah, hold it right there soldier. That's clearly unfair. From now on we'll use the standard ranking of hands in poker, with no deviations allowed."

And with that, the commanding officers left the room and the poker playing resumed.

"They were an unsuited two pair, hoping to catch a new life on the flop, and find happiness on river."

So the playing continues, not as bad as before, but the Dealer still winning the vast majority of the hands (since he can see all of the cards.) His pile steadily gets bigger, and while a few guys get lucky and cut their losses a bit, a general feeling of frustration permeates (remember, they have no idea what this is about.) Archipov and the commanding officers walk back in, and the hands go right up. When Archipov simply looks in Sgt. Michaels direction, he starts in:

Michaels: General Archipov, sir, the dealer can see all of our cards but we aren't allowed to see his!

Archipov: Why that's ridiculous! That's not a fair way to play the game. The dealer's not allowed to ask to see your cards from now on, nor should you see his. There's still a little time left; play on.

"He was the ace of diamonds and she was the queen of hearts, but love is the biggest big blind of all."

So, it's been 2 hours and most people are down if not out, but they're finally playing by the real rules. The dealers play tight, and hang close to the $400 dollars or so they all have while the other players scrounge to catch up with their meager chip standings. Archipov walks back after only a few minutes to ask how things are going and things are as restless and tense as they were an hour ago. "What's the matter?" Archipov asks. "What could you possibly have to complain about? You didn't like the first rule so I changed it. You thought the second rule was unfair, so i changed it too. I've given you everything you wanted and now you're playing by rules that we all agree are perfectly fair. What in the hell are you complaining about?"

Michaels is the first to pipe up: "Sure, we're playing by rules that are fair now- but the dealers got to play with unfair rules for two hours! They've got all the chips!"

Archipov repeats this for effect:
"They've got all the chips. Gentlemen, what you're feeling right now is all you need to know about why we need Affirmative Action."

"We seek not just freedom but opportunity - not just legal equity but human ability - not just equality as a right and a theory, but equality as a fact and a result."
-Lyndon Johnson

Statistics on the average annual earnings (i.e. the wage gap) as broken down by race and gender here.

*I made up the name because I didn't remember it but I'm sure he was white. Anyone should be extremely proud to have the name Archipov though as a google search will show- I'll blog about it in the future anyway,


Anonymous said...

So am I to infer that you believe two wrongs make a right?

Matt said...

No, definitely not. I consder redressing past harms a "right" and not a "wrong" (hence the LBJ quote.) You could argue that telling a kid to sit in time out for hitting his sister is "wrong" because two wrongs don't make a right, but it misses the point: having him sit in time out is a "right" that would be a wrong in some other circumstances. Incidentally that's not really an analogy (affirmative action isn't about telling white people to sit in time out) but just an illustration of the principle. We can talk about Kant here if you want, but I hope this suffices. I understand the objection though, and I hope I've answered it adequately.

Anonymous said...

That's actually one of the best explanations of Affirmitve Actions I have ever heard. Gotta respect the military for coming up with such an innovative way of getting the general feelings of minorities in America.

Anonymous said...

The remedy at the end of the game, going forward, is to spot some chips to each of the players who have been laboring under the unfair rules. Eventually the players who were spotted chips will win more hands and accumulate chips and they will eventually catch up to the dealer and not need to be spotted any further chips.

What is the effect on the allegory if you introduce another category of players. These players have as many, or a perhaps a little more, than the other players. But going forward these players are not going to be spotted any chips. (I don't think this analogy is perfect by any means, but bear with me.)

These players, who are starting behind an 8 ball like the affirmative action players are, might complain that they are just as poor as the affirmative action players and they were left behind by the system of unfair poker rules like the affirmative action players were. They might resent seeing the dealer hand over chips to the other players while they are told that they do not get any.

I am thinking that poor whites see themselves as these other poker players, who aren't getting help to redress their lot in life.

I do not know if they have a valid complaint but it seems they should be included in the analogy. Maybe they were players who didn't suffer under the same unfair rules as the aff. action players, but just sucked at poker and ended up with no chips. Or maybe they suffer from different oppressions (they are women or gay players) so they should have a more tailored remedy.

Anyway, thanks for sharing this great story and making me think.