It's hard to know who deserves credit for the phrase "Don't Hate the Player. Hate the Game." Ice-T had a song with these words in his 1999 song "Don't Hate the Playa", and I'm pretty sure I first heard it in popular usage in the mid-2000's. But, I always thought of it in the dating context, as it was originally used as a label towards successful but often unscrupulous individuals.
Time and again, though, these words provide an incredibly poignant description to the inner-workings of a wide array of ecosystems, from dating to Wall Street. For me they act as a reminder that while easier to blame the person, better rules can do more to curb bad behavior than trying to find better people.
Not "Rules" but Alignment of Incentives
Whether at times or all the time, we as people push the limits. Parents, especially can tell you of this - be it the terrible two's to teenagers - it is as though part of the human fabric is seeing just how much one can get away with. When teenagers do it, we often feel disappointed in them because we expect more. But, is that the case with toddlers? Do we feel disappointed in them, or do we just accept that as part of both human nature and human development?
I recall reading "The Big Short," which chronicles the often atrocious behind the scenes behavior of the real wolves of Wall Street. Reading the book will induce equal parts amazement and anger. And it will leave you wondering how in the world not a single person went to jail as a result of actions during the Financial Crisis. The people who profited the most knew exactly what they were doing, and they knew exactly the mess their actions could leave.
If the people behind the financial crisis knew what they were doing, that is, they knew they were making money by selling absolute, explosive junk, does that make them bad people? Should we hate them? Maybe, but chances are that most enterprising people would have cashed in on many of the same opportunities. Maybe it wouldn't have been with the same level of toxicity, but we would probably have enjoyed the chance to make a lot of money, very easily, by playing off of others' ignorance and greed.
What if though, instead of big Wall Street bonuses and certain profits being paid yearly, what if there was a clawback? What if the profits that came from these toxic trades came with a catch? What if one was liable for some part of the longer-term results? That's what car companies do in a way. They sell you a car, but then they give you a warranty. If they don't make a good car, it will cost them a lot of money down the road. Thus, they have an incentive for making safe and reliable vehicles.
This doesn't exist at scale in the world of finance. Those who made billions selling crap were able to grab the paper gains in that moment. If they had to be on the hook for the products they represented, chances are they would have made very different deals. In other words, so much could have been and could be solved not through greater regulation but through better alignment of incentives.
All of which brings me to Donald Trump. Time and again he says things that are equally atrocious. The idea of banning certain people from entering based on religion is abhorrent. It is not how we raise our kids to think, and it is not how we want others to do onto us. It is not dramatic and bold but far from presidential.
Just imagine visiting a foreign country that didn't let you in based on religion. Turkey is an amazing country. It also has a lot of Muslims. Imagine not being able to visit Turkey because you are American. Or, worse, imagine how it would feel to be American in Turkey, but your own country wouldn't allow them to visit. If you have ever met a Turkish person or visited Turkey you would know just how absurd it is.
Should we hate Donald Trump? Maybe. But, I suspect he doesn't actually believe the vast majority of what he says. For as out of touch as he is with the average person and what they go through, he is a master at the game. Is it a surprise? For so many people, the game is the reason that they know him. As a master of the game and one with almost pathological confidence, he doesn't care about the humanity of his actions. He cares about votes, and he knows just what to say to get votes.
Knowing what to say to get early votes doesn't mean you will make a good President. And what one says now to get votes is very different from what one says later to get votes. Trump knows this. And, he has already shown about as much loyalty to certain people and convictions as millennials to cable TV. Frustrating as it is to listen to him, frustrating as it is to hear the words that come out of his mouth, I can only hate the game. If we want better candidates, we need a better game.