The Economics of John Nash

I’m in the midst of a four week string of conferences and travel, and terribly backed up with posts on some great new papers, but I can’t let the tragic passing today of John Nash go by without comment. When nonacademics ask what I do, I often say that I work in a branch of applied math called game theory; if you say you are economist, the man on the street expects you to know when unemployment will go down, or which stocks they should buy, or whether monetary expansion will lead to inflation, questions which the applied theorist has little ability to answer in a satisfying way. But then, if you mention game theory, without question the most common way your interlocutor knows the field is via Russell Crowe’s John Nash character in A Beautiful Mind, so surely, and rightfully, no game theorist has greater popular name recognition.

Now Nash’s contributions to economics are very small, though enormously influential. He was a pure mathematician who took only one course in economics in his studies; more on this fortuitous course shortly. The contributions are simple to state: Nash founded the theory of non-cooperative games, and he instigated an important, though ultimately unsuccessful, literature on bargaining. Nash essentially only has two short papers on each topic, each of which is easy to follow for a modern reader, so I will generally discuss some background on the work rather than the well-known results directly.

First, non-cooperative games. Robert Leonard has a very interesting intellectual history of the early days of game theory, the formal study of strategic interaction, which begins well before Nash. Many like to cite von Neumann’s “Zur Theorie der Gesellschaftsspiele” (“A Theory of Parlor Games”), from whence we have the minimax theorem, but Emile Borel in the early 1920’s, and Ernst Zermelo with his eponymous theorem a decade earlier, surely form relevant prehistory as well. These earlier attempts, including von Neumann’s book with Morganstern, did not allow general investigation of what we now call noncooperative games, or strategic situations where players do not attempt to collude. The most famous situation of this type is the Prisoner’s Dilemma, a simple example, yet a shocking one: competing agents, be they individuals, firms or countries, may (in a sense) rationally find themselves taking actions which both parties think is worse than some alternative. Given the U.S. government interest in how a joint nuclear world with the Soviets would play out, analyzing situations of that type was not simply a “Gesellschaftsspiele” in the late 1940s; Nash himself was funded by the Atomic Energy Commission, and RAND, site of a huge amount of important early game theory research, was linked to the military.

Nash’s insight was, in retrospect, very simple. Consider a soccer penalty kick, where the only options are to kick left and right for the shooter, and to simultaneously dive left or right for the goalie. Now at first glance, it seems like there can be no equilibrium: if the shooter will kick left, then the goalie will jump to that side, in which case the shooter would prefer to shoot right, in which case the goalie would prefer to switch as well, and so on. In real life, then, what do we expect to happen? Well, surely we expect that the shooter will sometimes shoot left and sometimes right, and likewise the goalie will mix which way she dives. That is, instead of two strategies for each player, we have a continuum of mixed strategies, where a mixed strategy is simply a probability distribution over the strategies “Left, Right”. This idea of mixed strategies “convexifies” the strategy space so that we can use fixed point strategies to guarantee that an equilibrium exists in every finite-strategy noncooperative game under expected utility (Kakutani’s Fixed Point in the initial one-page paper in PNAS which Nash wrote his very first year of graduate school, and Brouwer’s Fixed Point in the Annals of Math article which more rigorously lays out Nash’s noncooperative theory). Because of Nash, we are able to analyze essentially whatever nonstrategic situation we want under what seems to be a reasonable solution concept (I optimize given my beliefs about what others will do, and my beliefs are in the end correct). More importantly, the fixed point theorems Nash used to generate his equilibria are now so broadly applied that no respectable economist should now get a PhD without understanding how they work.

(A quick aside: it is quite interesting to me that game theory, as opposed to Walrasian/Marshallian economics, does not derive from physics or other natural sciences, but rather from a program at the intersection of formal logic and mathematics, primarily in Germany, primarily in the early 20th century. I still have a mind to write a proper paper on this intellectual history at some point, but there is a very real sense in which economics post-Samuelson, von Neumann and Nash forms a rather continuous methodology with earlier social science in the sense of qualitative deduction, whereas it is our sister social sciences which, for a variety of reasons, go on writing papers without the powerful tools of modern logic and the mathematics which followed Hilbert. When Nash makes claims about the existence of equilibria due to Brouwer, the mathematics is merely the structure holding up and extending ideas concerning the interaction of agents in noncooperative systems that would have been totally familiar to earlier generations of economists who simply didn’t have access to tools like the fixed point theorems, in the same way that Samuelson and Houthakker’s ideas on utility are no great break from earlier work aside from their explicit incorporation of deduction on the basis of relational logic, a tool unknown to economists in the 19th century. That is, I claim the mathematization of economics in the mid 20th century represents no major methodological break, nor an attempt to ape the natural sciences. Back to Nash’s work in the direct sense.)

Nash only applies his theory to one game: a simplified version of poker due to his advisor called Kuhn Poker. It turned out that the noncooperative solution was not immediately applicable, at least to the types of applied situations where it is now commonplace, without a handful of modifications. In my read of the intellectual history, noncooperative games was a bit of a failure outside the realm of pure math in its first 25 years because we still needed Harsanyi’s purification theorem and Bayesian equilibria to understand what exactly was going on with mixed strategies, Reinhard Selten’s idea of subgame perfection to reasonably analyze games with multiple stages, and the idea of mechanism design of Gibbard, Vickers, Myerson, Maskin, and Satterthwaite (among others) to make it possible to discuss how institutions affect outcomes which are determined in equilibrium. It is not simply economists that Nash influenced; among many others, his work directly leads to the evolutionary games of Maynard Smith and Price in biology and linguistics, the upper and lower values of his 1953 results have been used to prove other mathematical results and to discuss what is meant as truth in philosophy, and Nash is widespread in the analysis of voting behavior in political science and international relations.

The bargaining solution is a trickier legacy. Recall Nash’s sole economics course, which he took as an undergraduate. In that course, he wrote a term paper, eventually to appear in Econometrica, where he attempted to axiomatize what will happen when two parties bargain over some outcome. The idea is simple. Whatever the bargaining outcome is, we want it to satisfy a handful of reasonable assumptions. First, since ordinal utility is invariant to affine transformations of a utility function, the bargaining outcome should not be affected by these types of transformations: only ordinal preferences should matter. Second, the outcome should be Pareto optimal: the players would have to mighty spiteful to throw away part of the pie rather than give it to at least one of them. Third, given their utility functions players should be treated symmetrically. Fourth (and a bit controversially, as we will see), Nash insisted on Independence of Irrelevant Alternatives, meaning that if f(T) is the set of “fair bargains” when T is the set of all potential bargains, then if the potential set of bargains is smaller yet still contains f(T), say S strictly contained by T where f(T) is in S, then f(T) must remain the barganing outcome. It turns out that under these assumptions, there is a unique outcome which maximizes (u(x)-u(d))*(v(x)-v(d)), where u and v are each player’s utility functions, x is the vector of payoffs under the eventual bargain, and d the “status-quo” payoff if no bargain is made. This is natural in many cases. For instance, if two identical agents are splitting a dollar, then 50-50 is the only Nash outcome. Uniqueness is not at all obvious: recall the Edgeworth box and you will see that individual rationality and Pareto optimality alone leave many potential equilibria. Nash’s result is elegant and surprising, and it is no surprise that Nash’s grad school recommendation letter famously was only one sentence long: “This man is a genius.”

One problem with Nash bargaining, however. Nash was famously bipolar in real life, but there is an analogous bipolar feel to the idea of Nash equilibrium and the idea of Nash bargaining: where exactly are threats in Nash’s bargain theory? That is, Nash bargaining as an idea completely follows from the cooperative theory of von Neumann and Morganstern. Consider two identical agents splitting a dollar once more. Imagine that one of the agents already has 30 cents, so that only 70 of the cents are actually in the middle of the table. The Nash solution is that the person who starts with the thirty cents eventually winds up with 65 cents, and the other person with 35. But play this out in your head.

Player 1: “I, already having the 30 cents, should get half of what remains. It is only fair, and if you don’t give me 65 I will walk away from this table and we will each get nothing more.”

Player 2: “What does that have to do with it? The fair outcome is 50 cents each, which leaves you with more than your originally thirty, so you can take your threat and go jump off a bridge.”

That is, 50/50 might be a reasonable solution here, right? This might make even more sense if we take a more concrete example: bargaining over wages. Imagine the prevailing wage for CEOs in your industry is $250,000. Two identical CEOs will generate $500,000 in value for the firm if hired. CEO Candidate One has no other job offer. CEO Candidate Two has an offer from a job with similar prestige and benefits, paying $175,000. Surely we can’t believe that the second CEO will wind up with higher pay, right? It is a completely noncredible threat to take the $175,000 offer, hence it shouldn’t affect the bargaining outcome. A pet peeve of mine is that many applied economists are still using Nash bargaining – often in the context of the labor market! – despite this well-known problem.

Nash was quite aware of this, as can be seen by his 1953 Econometrica, where he attempts to give a noncooperative bargaining game that reaches the earlier axiomatic outcome. Indeed, this paper inspired an enormous research agenda called the Nash Program devoted to finding noncooperative games which generate well-known or reasonable-sounding cooperative solution outcomes. In some sense, the idea of “implementation” in mechanism design, where we investigate whether there exists a game which can generate socially or coalitionally preferred outcomes noncooperatively, can be thought of as a successful modern branch of the Nash program. Nash’s ’53 noncooperative game simply involves adding a bit of noise into the set of possible outcomes. Consider splitting a dollar again. Let a third party tell each player to name how many cents they want. If the joint requests are feasible, then the dollar is split (with any remainder thrown away), else each player gets nothing. Clearly every split of the dollar on the Pareto frontier is a Nash equilibrium, as is each player requesting the full dollar and getting nothing. However, if there is a tiny bit of noise about whether there is exactly one dollar, or .99 cents, or 1.01 cents, etc., when deciding whether to ask for more money, I will have to weigh the higher payoff if the joint demand is feasible against the payoff zero if my increased demand makes the split impossible and hence neither of us earn anything. In a rough sense, Nash shows that as the distribution of noise becomes degenerate around the true bargaining frontier, players will demand exactly their Nash bargaining outcome. Of course it is interesting that there exists some bargaining game that generates the Nash solution, and the idea that we should study noncooperative games which implement cooperate solution concepts is without a doubt seminal, but this particular game seems very strange to me, as I don’t understand what the source of the noise is, why it becomes degenerate, etc.

On the shoulders of Nash, however, bargaining progressed a huge amount. Three papers in particular are worth your time, although hopefully you have seen these before: Kalai and Smorodinsky 1975 who retaining the axiomatic approach but drop IIA, Rubinstein’s famous 1982 Econometrica on noncooperative bargaining with alternative offers, and Binmore, Rubinstein and Wolinsky on implementation of bargaining solutions which deals with the idea of threats as I did above.

You can read all four Nash papers in the original literally during your lunch hour; this seems to me a worthy way to tip your cap toward a man who literally helped make modern economics possible.


11 thoughts on “The Economics of John Nash

  1. YGY says:

    Reblogged this on Articonomics and commented:
    Nash in context of econ history:”You can read all four Nash papers in the original literally during your lunch hour”

  2. stevepostrel says:

    Did you really mean to imply that Nash invented the idea of mixed strategies? Because he didn’t–it’s all over V-N and Morgenstern’s treatment of zero-sum games.

    • afinetheorem says:

      Absolutely right; I am only claiming that mixed strategies are the essential step which gets Nash from best responses (an idea that, known to the authors or not, is much older) to equilibrium existence under Nash’s particular stability definition. vNM do not use mixing in anything like that context.

  3. alasdair49 says:

    You write that Maynard Smith’s evolutionary game theory derived from Nash, but (a) Nash is not cited in JMS’s book, (b) in personal conversation with JMS he said he arrived at idea of ESS equilibrium independently, (c) he seemed to feel he deserved recognition of a parallel but distinct contribution from Nash’s.

    • afinetheorem says:

      Interesting – regardless of MS’s intellectual background, the later development of evolutionary game theory absolutely follows a path laid down by Nash and dynamic game theorists of the 50s like Brown.

  4. Jeff says:

    Umm, the “CEO Candidate” example looks completely non-analogous to me. Candidate Two will not keep both jobs if hired. (Player 1 keeps both the $.30 and the additional $.35 on successful negotiation.) And there is no non-success Candidate outcome — the firm will hire Candidate One at $250,000+eps as soon as Candidate Two balks at it. (The presence of the firm as a third party means Candidate Two cannot nix Candidate One’s chances.) What am I missing?

    • afinetheorem says:

      Think of the two candidates as two hypothetical sole options for the firm, not competing candidates. I only wish to point out that whether or not the given outside option exists, it would be strange if the wage varied.

      • Jeff says:

        Again, I don’t see that the “outside option” is a valid analog. It would have to be a “second job” (that was kept) to be analogous in the Nash equilibrium as you describe it.

  5. Igor says:

    I would be quite interested in reading such an account of the history of economic thought as you mention in the aside. Also, I can second that Leonard’s book mentioned in the text is indeed very interesting. Actually much more interesting that one would think.

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