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Entrapment in Escalating Conflict - A Lesson for the Bush Administration

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Message Dayle   E. Spencer
Entrapment in Escalating Conflict - A Lesson for the Bush Administration

In teaching my graduate level courses on negotiation, I would often conduct an auction of a one dollar bill. This prize was nothing special, simply a dollar that I had taken out of my wallet. I would show it to the students and explain that I was about to auction it and that the winner would receive my dollar. However, this auction was different than usual ones, in that both the winner and the second highest bidder would pay me their last bid amounts.

Before the class had too much time to think about the terms of the auction, I would start the bidding, as low as five cents. One nickel bid and you could be the winner of one dollar! I have done this exercise with numerous classes, and even in public speaking engagements with results that do not vary.

When the bid amounts are low, relative to the value of the prize, many bidders offer a bid: five cents, ten cents, a quarter, and so on. As the bidding approaches one dollar, I am usually left with only two bidders, and that is when it gets very interesting. The reality begins to sink in that each of them is going to pay their last bid amount, and that only one of them will have a dollar to offset their bid. At this point, I make them both stand up so that the pressure is increased. While the rest of the class or audience looks on in amazement, two perfectly intelligent, seemingly rational people consistently increase their bids well over the value of the dollar itself. I have actually had the bidding go as high as Twenty-five dollars for the highest bidder and Twenty-four dollars for the second highest, whose prize was nothing!

As we debrief the experience, some say that they just didn't want to feel like they "lost", others rationalize that somehow the prize was worth more to them than the actual value of the dollar. Some simply admit that their ego got the better of them. Whatever their reasons, I make the bidders come to the front of the room and publicly pay their bids.

The experience my students gain through the dollar bill auction is a valuable life lesson, one that our nation needs to learn. We began bidding on a prize in Iraq several years ago when it seemed that the price of success was small compared to the outcome of spreading democracy throughout the Middle East. We convinced ourselves that we would be greeted a liberators, and that victory would come quickly, in fact we thought the bidding was already over when Mission Accomplished was announced by our principal bidder. We were wrong.

The conflict is escalating, just like the dollar bill auction. Instead of a multi-national force of liberators, we now face the reality of going it alone in a country where we aren't welcomed, and are seen as invaders, occupiers, infidels, and worse. Members of our Congress, who should have known better, went along with the war initially rather than seem weak on national defense. They are now considering increasing their bids for the same reasons my students do, either they have convinced themselves that the prize is worth more than it actually is, or their egos are so caught up in the competition they just don't want to lose face.

President Bush will go on raising the bid until he leaves office. To do otherwise would be to admit he was wrong to start this war, and wrong to escalate it even after it became apparent that we couldn't possibly win it. Will members of the Congress continue to go along with the escalation to salvage their egos as well?

The dollar bill auction has a simple learning; it is the same as the lesson from the movie War Games: the only way to win is not to play. I wish that when Mr. Bush was in graduate school one of his professors had taught him the dollar bill auction. If they had, we might have been able to rebuild the houses along the Gulf Coast by now, or use the billions of dollars for education of students, or clothe the poor, or feed the hungry. There were so many better ways we could have spent the money, and used those American service personnel, than in the deadly and costly service of our ego needs.

We have already paid more than 3,000 American soldiers' lives, and billions of dollars for this war, when will we finally wake up and simply stop the bidding?
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Dayle E. Spencer is co-director of the Rocky Mountain Leadership Institute,, a non-partisan progressive institute dedicated to promoting value-based leadership in the heartland of America.
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Entrapment in Escalating Conflict - A Lesson for the Bush Administration

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