Reflection by Prof Watson

An Overview of Ben Horne’s Research on Concessions and Mediation

I just want to take a moment to tell you about Ben’s work here at UCSD.

Ben started the Ph.D. program in 2007.  He was part of a terrific incoming group of students — a class that would go on to great distinction.

Like many in his class, Ben entered UCSD with a lot of experience and understanding of economics.  In fact, I would say that Ben was an exceptional outlier — words suitable to describe many aspects of Ben’s life.

He came to UCSD with a wealth of experience:

– A masters degree in applied economics from Johns Hopkins, where among other things he studied development and the Middle East.

– Extensive university teaching experience from his time living in Kyrgyzstan.

I didn’t get to know Ben from the perspective of an instructor, because I didn’t teach any graduate courses in his first year of the program.  But I did get to know him as a colleague soon after he arrived, because in his second quarter he was assigned to be a teaching assistant in my undergraduate game-theory course.

I remember it well, for my 2008 Winter game theory course was one of the best in my career, but it wasn’t because of me.  I was dealing with a heavy administrative load, the development of a range of medical problems with my family, and a very tight schedule.  So I was drained and desperate for help with tasks that the professor, rather than the TAs, is supposed to do.  The TAs were amazing, probably the best group of TAs I have ever worked with:  Kristy Buzard, David Eil, Tim Keller, and Ben.

On many days, I turned to Ben and Kristy to ask “Can you teach an extra session on subgame perfection in bargaining games?  I didn’t cover it in class.” or “Can you meet with these students and help them understand discounting?” or “There’s a problem and I can’t make it to my office hours?”  I remember turning over to them significant instructional duties.  What was amazing is that they were like faculty colleagues in this respect.  They were terrific teachers and they understood the material really well.  I trusted them completed.  They saved my class that year and it was a pleasure working with them.

I didn’t interact with Ben much in the following year.  I know that his interests were broad.  He dabbled in decision theory and experimental economics.

At some point, I gather that his deep interest in cooperation and peace, along with his personal experiences abroad, led him to focus his attention in this area.  He came to me with lots of ideas and goals.  I wasn’t as much an “advisor” as simply a faculty colleague who provided comments and worked to keep his modeling on track.

With me, Ben worked on some game-theoretic models of conflict resolution.

The basic idea is that you have, for example, two states that will interact over time, have some sort of conflict, and have private information.  The private information has to do with a country’s benefit of a peaceful resolution — its leaders’ willingness to cooperate.

For instance, in the conflict between Russia and Chechnya, Russia does not know whether Chechnya has the incentive to cooperate with a peace agreement.  Russia would want an agreement with the “good” type of Chechnya — the type that has an incentive to abide by the terms of the agreement.  However, a “bad” type of Chechnya could gain by cheating on an agreement, which makes Russia leery in the first place.  The result could be a perpetual state of conflict.

Ben looked at a variety of ways in which the parties might signal their intentions.  For example, they could:

Make monetary payments,

Make another kind of concession (reposition weapons, humanitarian aid, etc.),

Forego concessions, make an agreement, and see whether the parties abide initially,

Test the waters with a small agreement.

In addition, a third party mediator might play a role.

The key logical issue — and the main reason to develop a theoretical model — is that parties with different preferences have different incentives to make concessions, and different incentives to cooperate later.  It takes a model to sort out the incentives and to identify conditions under which peace can be realized.

A particular kind of concession is effective only if the good type of Chechnya wants to do it, whereas the bad type does not.  In this case, a concession from Chechnya provides Russia with a strong indication that it is dealing with the good type of Chechnya, and it will then have the confidence to make an agreement.

Ben used game theory to figure out which types of concessions can work in various situations.  The results aren’t always positive.  Sometimes no concession would do the job.

Ben’s research is applied theory.  He didn’t work on models for the sake of establishing new abstract concepts; he did it because he was interested in understanding why so many conflicts across the world have gone unresolved.  He wanted to find ways to reaching peace.

Ben wrote two papers on this topic; both examine settings with two-sided uncertainty (both states have private information).  The first looks at the role of a third-party mediator and aims to identify how effective the mediator can be with various intervention technologies.  Ben’s main findings are:

A mediator that can only communicate (shuttle diplomacy) cannot be effective.

If the mediator can enforce concessions, then it’s a different story.  This is a situation in which another country can force the parties to make the concessions that they promise.  In such a case, the mediator can make sure that concessions occur only when both countries report that they are willing to cooperate, which increases welfare.  I also makes the required concessions higher.  This is valuable if the bad and good types have different relative costs of concessions.

If the mediator can compel sanctions, the outcome is even better.

Ben’s second paper looks at the issue of inefficient concessions — that is, concessions that seem to be wasteful.  An example is:  Israel agrees to give up some land to Syria, but before doing so it dismantles all infrastructure.

The paper provides a novel theory for why we sometimes see inefficient concessions.  The idea is that efficient concessions provide benefits to the other party.  In fact, the benefits may be large to the bad type.  (If Israel leaves the infrastructure intact, then a bad type of Syria will be able to use this infrastructure for military purposes against Israel.)  This heightens the bad type’s interest in making a concession in attempt to appear good and establish an agreement, only to fight later.

The solution is to use concessions that don’t provide much benefit to the other side — in other words, inefficient concessions.

The paper also provides a new rationale for mediation.  If the mediator can enforce concessions, then the mediator can ensure that the concessions occur only when both sides have committed to them.  This lowers the bad type’s interest in pretending to be good.  Concessions can then be made more efficient.  So effective mediation helps reduce waste in the settlement process.

Ben was also working on a third paper, to explore the dynamics of concessions.  He showed that countries have preferences over whether to be first or second in making a concession.  They typically want to go second, waiting until the other side reveals itself.  But this leads to an outcome in which the countries both wait and eventually must move simultaneously, which is less efficient.

My brief description of Ben’s work focuses on the theoretical part, because this is my area of expertise.  But this was just part of Ben’s work.  During the past two years, Ben focus turned more and more to the applied side, where he found motivation and examples from many case studies of international conflict.

In fact, Ben became a student of political science.  We in the economics department supported his theoretical side, while colleagues in the political science department supported his applied side — on international conflict studies.  In the end, his dissertation is truly political economics.  He went only on the political science job market last year and was planning to do the same again.

Thoughts about Ben Horne

I represent Ben’s friends and colleagues among the faculty and staff of the economics department at UCSD, where Ben spent the past five years and where he affected everyone in the most positive way.

I was particularly fortunate, for I served as Ben’s dissertation advisor and had the pleasure of meeting with him regularly.

Of all of the students I have advised over the years, Ben surely had the most positive attitude.  At the beginning of our regular meetings, I would typically ask “How are things going with your research?” and he would invariably answer “good, actually I think really good.” 

Ben was an independent thinker.  He didn’t require any help in coming up with good research topics and questions.

He especially loved to meet new people and share ideas.  When Ben returned from conferences, he was quick to point out how excited he was to have met researchers with similar interests.  And he expressed great appreciation for the support that others gave him.

Ben didn’t always take my advice about what topics to focus on or what approach to take with the analysis.  At first I interpreted this as just stubbornness, but I came to understand and appreciate what it really was, what Ben was all about:  Passion to develop an understanding of the real world and to find ways of bringing people together in peace.  This was the focus of his research and the focus of his personal life.

Unlike most graduate students, who at times show a great deal of anxiety and endure months without something tangible to work on, Ben always had focus and determination.  There was always a goal and he was constantly optimistic about achieving the goal.  It seemed that Ben never wasted time on anything. 

He accepted constructive criticism beautifully, never defensive and always open-minded.  He was always respectful and accommodating.

For Ben, every academic experience was a good one.

There was always something positive that came out of taking a class, presenting at a conference, struggling through the analysis of a game-theoretic model, getting the opposite result than he wanted, realizing that his model should be changed and reworked.

To illustrate Ben’s optimism, his focus on the positive, and his gracious attitude, let me tell you about one event in his academic career.

It is not easy for someone to present a research project the first time.  It is an especially daunting task if you’re a graduate student and you are presenting to your colleagues and to senior faculty.  There is a great deal of uncertainty and apprehension.  You don’t know whether others will think your ideas are worthwhile.  You are extremely vulnerable.

In the Economics Department, we have a workshop in which the graduate students, and occasionally faculty, present their research at various stages of development.  About a year ago, Ben gave a presentation.  One of the most distinguished faculty members, who was having a particularly bad day, subjected Ben to unrelenting criticism.  There were some problems with Ben’s analysis, but the level of criticism was out of line.  I was embarrassed.  Everyone else in the room was silent in disbelief.  Most speakers in this situation would have broken down.

But Ben stood calmly and was clearly at peace.  He was respectful.  It was clear that he simply wanted to find the instructive and positive aspects of the professor’s comments.  And Ben had no ill will, no spite, just an honest interest in learning.

At that moment, Ben was a role model to the other students, and to the faculty as well.

To be with Ben made me (and I'm sure most others) aware of my own limitations, because Ben seemed to have none.  But there was no arrogance in him, so he made everyone around him feel comfortable.  We all rooted for Ben and felt fortunate to be along for the ride.

Across our department there is a great sense of loss that Ben is no longer with us.

But there is also a great sense of appreciation for the time that we spent with Ben.

And we look forward to honoring him by continuing the kind of research he was passionate about and by striving to show in ourselves some of Ben’s wonderful qualities.


Joel Watson, Ben’s faculty advisor, spoke on August 13, 2012 at the economics department event in remembrance of Ben and on August 14 at Ben’s Memorial Service. His reflection at both events consisted of two parts.  First, an overview of Ben’s research on concessions and mediation and second, thoughts about Ben.