Lessons from Lyndon Johnson

I’m in the middle of the third book in Robert Caro’s biography of Lyndon Johnson. The books are amazing; I can’t thank David Luan enough for recommending them. In brief, Caro’s thesis is

  1. Lyndon Johnson cares only about power, not about issues. He is essentially amoral in pursuit of that power.
  2. Lyndon Johnson is spectacularly skilled at politics.

It’s unclear how completely (1) holds; Caro provides plenty of evidence for it, but given Johnson’s facility with lies and pragmatism it’s hard to rule out underlying political views. The case for (2) is solid.

Moreover, (2) holds in a strong sense: Johnson is not simply skilled at politics, but far more skilled than nearly everyone around him. As a result, Johnson’s life is an example of asymmetric play in a theoretically symmetric game, and a beautiful illustration of how such asymmetric play is equivalent to the game itself having asymmetric rules. Much of the time, Johnson is simply playing a different game than the other political agents around him: he knows more of the state, has more resources, knows the rules better, and moves faster (literally running when others are walking).

Asymmetric play is equivalent to an asymmetric game

We have a multiagent game, with Johnson and the other political actors as agents. For the most part, we can treat the intrinsic game as symmetric: everyone is playing by the same rules. But relative to Johnson, the other players are impoverished in terms of skill, knowledge, resources, and knowledge of the rules themselves.

The intuitive point I want to make is that if we start with a symmetric game with asymmetric play (different players with different skill levels), and then coarsen, the coarsened game is asymmetric. Here’s the purest example of this phenomenon I’ve found in the books so far:

And then, all at once, Lyndon Johnson, standing next to his desk as he managed the bill under the unanimous consent agreement he had negotiated, noticed something. Under that agreement, two hours had been allocated to discussion of the Smith Amendment. The Republican arguments in favor of it had been completed, but the Democratic hour was just beginning. Not expecting a vote for an hour, senators had begun wandering on and off the floor. All at once, although there were still a substantial number of senators on the floor, that number did not include most of the liberals who opposed the Labor subcommittee bill—or most of the conservatives who opposed the bill. By coincidence, at that moment the bill’s strongest opponents all happened to be gone at the same time, leaving on the floor mostly moderates who were willing to settle for an unamended bill–no broadening of coverage but an increase to one dollar in the wage—in the form the Labor Committee had reported.

Johnson wants to pass a bill, but the vote count is against him. As Senate Majority Leader, he’s arranged to have a lot of power over exactly when voting takes place (previous Leaders had some of this power but did not take advantage of it). Senators are walking randomly on and off of the Senate floor, and when Johnson notices that one of these random fluctuations has shifted the count in his favor, he immediately calls the vote. We can illustrate the situation pictorially: Johnson strikes The rest of the players see a random point of the random fluctuation, or its mean, or perhaps a settled value. Johnson sees, and acts, on the entire fluctuating curve. If we coarsen the game with respect to this behavior, Johnson’s reward in the coarsened game will be shifted up relative to the fluctuating mean.

The books are full of examples of this kind of asymmetry, with results essentially as if Johnson was playing a game with highly lopsided rules in Johnson’s favor. Let’s go through some examples.

Asymmetric resources

Johnson’s campaigns so far (I’m up to his 1948 entrance to the Senate) have been campaign spending outliers, with Johnson spending far more money than his opponents and indeed anyone in history for the corresponding Texas election. He had this money due to ties with various Texas businessmen which he managed to enrich via policy and favorable contracts. In the 1948 Senate race, this extra money allowed Johnson to

  1. Blanket the state in media (radio, billboards, etc.), drowning out his opponent.
  2. Campaign via helicopter, enabling far more campaign stops than his opponent, and drawing large crowds of people who had never seen a helicopter.
  3. Buy tens of thousands of votes.

The media blanket allowed Johnson to win even with obvious lies: a key to his victory was claiming that his opponent, Coke Stevenson, was in the pocket of labor. This was sufficiently absurd that Stevenson refused to dignify it with a crisp denial, instead referring to his stauchly conservative record. When Stevenson finally realized the lie was working and issued a clear statement, he lacked funds to get the statement into the media at sufficient scale, and Johnson continued to broadcast his lie.

Dodging transparency

Johnson was careful to avoid being tied down to particular policy views in public. In private, especially in 1-1 conversations, he was then able to claim whatever the other person wanted to hear. Liberals got the sense that he was secretly liberal, voting conservatively only to satisfy his Texas base. In the Senate, conservatives felt he was deeply conservative, catering to liberals only to unify the Democrats and advance towards the presidency. Indeed, he would often tell mutually contractory stories in the same room, such as in the Senate Democrat cloakroom (deeply divided between liberals and conservatives).

Although there was some awareness of this strategy, much of his success would have evaporated had his various statements been common knowledge. In the Senate, he frequently managed to pass or block legislation while creating the impression that his goal had been the opposite. The Bricker Amendment would have sharply limited presidential power. Bricker was anathema to Johnson since it would have limited his own power once he achieved the presidency, but was strongly supported by many of his Texas funders. He managed to kill it in 1954 via the complicated strategy of encouraging another senator to introduce a milder amendment to draw support away from the original bill, arranging the vote counts to initially favor the new amendment, then killing it by a single vote in a second pass. Johnson himself voted for Bricker in each case, and word that he was actually against Bricker never reached his funders.

Knowing all the details

In the Senate, my impression from Caro’s book is that Johnson has a detailed model of every senator, including how they will vote and how they can be convinced otherwise. He knows all the rules of the Senate, and can take advantage of them in novel ways. None of this knowledge is magical: it was gained by talking to everyone, reading all of the rules himself or via staff, spending hours watching the function of the Senate, and being intelligent enough to hold all of this state in his head.

As the only person who knew the details of everything going on in the Senate, senators who wanted to know how to get a measure passed or blocked learned to consult Johnson. His status as an information hub allowed him to accrue actual power despite having little recognized power according to the rules, such as during his time as Assistant Majority Leader in the Senate (a role no one prior to Johnson wanted). Although he occasionally used this hub status to communicate lies, it was effective even when telling the truth: people who didn’t help Johnson were exiled from the information source.

Asymmetric speed

Johnson spent a lot of time literally running. (In the traditionally dignified Senate, he would sometimes run almost to his destination but slow to a dignified walk for effect.) He was more effective at using staff than other politicians, and drove his staff much harder, allowing him to accomplish tasks faster and in parallel. One can imagine a go game where one player gets to make twice as many moves. We can view the situation as a game that starts symmetric with continuous time, then coarsens to an asymmetric game with discrete time where Johnson gets to play more often.

But he still did a lot of good!

Despite Johnson’s amorality and the asymmetry of the game he was playing, he still ended up doing a lot of good. I haven’t gotten to the Civil Rights Act and the Great Society, but at my current point in the book he just managed to pass a massive affordable housing bill and a $\frac{4}{3} \times$ minimum wage jump to the distinct surprise of everyone else in the Senate (using procedural tricks such as the sudden vote call above). (The Vietnam War is less good.)

This could be explained by Johnson acquiring power through asymmetric play and then revealing his secretly altruistic preferences. Caro doesn’t have enough evidence to rule this out, but I think he does have enough evidence that Johnson’s positive accomplishments can be explained by the search for power. Prior to Johnson, the prevailing view was that no Southerner could become president. His shift towards the liberal side in the Senate let him work around this problem by unifying the liberal and conservative sides of the Democratic party, while preserving the support of conservative Southerners (who expected to get a conservative Southerner in the White House).

AI safety optimism

Overall I think this is hopeful story: even a woefully asymmetric game managed to align Johnson towards positive things. Moreover, the features that caused the asymmetry are not subtle: money, speed, knowledge, lack of transparency. In the AI safety case we get to design our own game. We can use balanced agents for symmetry, with matched resources and speed, full common knowledge to reveal inconsistencies, Ideally, interpretability methods will let us look inside agents and see what they are actually thinking. Hopefully we can design a game better than the one Johnson was playing.

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