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The Game of Congress

July 15th, 2011 1 comment

Recently, as I was pondering the current predicament of raising the debt ceiling and the infantile behavior of our Congress, I started asking myself why conservatives always seem to get what they want out of these battles while liberals always seem to cave to their demands. Part of it, I realize, is just my perspective, since many conservatives and Tea Party Republicans felt sold out by the Republican leadership in the last budget debate threatening to shut down the government (the same one that liberals thought Obama caved on).

But there’s more to it than just that. Democrats could not manage to end Bush’s budget-sucking tax cuts for the rich, even with a large majority. A Democratic supermajority couldn’t deliver a public option for health care. Instead of stimulus spending, Congress keeps settling for tax cuts for businesses that need customers, not pocket change. Even Bill Clinton’s major domestic successes are mainly conservative ones: a balanced budget, welfare reform, and the NAFTA free trade deal.

Then I looked at the tactics used by the parties in Congress and had a flashback to high school economics and that movie, A Beautiful Mind, with Russel Crowe: game theory.

Basically Democrats and Republicans are stuck in a situation in which their success in making choices depends on the choices of others, which is the essence of game theory. Unfortunately, the game they have settled on is one known as the hawk-dove game, or more colloquially, a game of chicken. The possible outcomes look like this:

Liberals
Compromise
Liberals
Refuse
Conservatives
Compromise
tie, tie lose, win
Conservatives
Refuse
win, lose USA = F’d in the A
(lose, lose)

In order to win at a game of chicken, all you have to do is convince your opponent that you are crazier than they are. Republicans, with help from the Tea Party, have done an excellent job of this. We really aren’t sure just how crazy they are when it comes to the debt ceiling. Some liberals want Obama and the Democratic leadership to “call the conservatives’ bluff” and force them to back down. The problem is that Democrats aren’t really sure that they are rational enough to back down. As long as Democrats continue being more concerned with the overall well-being of the country than with liberal dogma, they will keep giving in to conservative demands.

At the same time, the parties are trying to construct safety nets for themselves in case they do end up in the bottom-right square. They do this by framing the debate as “the other party’s fault” in the hopes that the blame will fall on the other for being least compromise-y. Anecdotally, I would say that conservatives have been better at framing this blame game, giving them cover to play chicken as Machiavelli would have liked it.

Settlers of Catan Board Game

Settlers of Catan: the game Congress should be playing?

However, this time with the debt ceiling voters seem to have noted conservatives’ stubbornness, and say they would blame Republicans over the Obama administration if the ceiling isn’t raised. So will Obama and the Democrats take a more hard-line approach as the deadline approaches? And is that actually a good idea? We shall see. But I know one thing: nothing’s likely to change unless liberals take a different approach or unless we can give Congress a new game to play. Personally, I vote for Settlers of Catan. Then they’d at least build us some new roads.