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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.

War in Wisconsin

March 8th, 2011 2 comments

Wisconsin Budget Protesters in the SnowLast month saw war break out in Wisconsin, over labor unions. In case you missed the headlines, this is basically how it went down:

Gov. Scott Walker: We have a budget shortfall and we have to make some hard choices. Therefore I’ve proposed a bill to destroy labor unions in Wisconsin.
Democratic State Senators: What??? We’re not going back to the Gilded Age!
Walker: What’s wrong with the Gilded Age?
Dems: We were willing to negotiate benefits and compensation, but getting rid of collective bargaining rights would mean families could just get steamrolled by their employers!
Walker: Oh, speaking of steamrolling, we Republicans control a majority of the State Senate, so you can’t really stop us.
Dems: Wait, it says in the State Constitution that the Wisconsin Senate needs at least 3/5 of its members present to vote on budgetary issues… if we don’t show up, they’ll be one short and can’t pass the bill!
Repubs: What??? Ok, well it also says the Seargant at Arms can “compel” the attendance of absent members…
Dems: We’re leaving the state – compel this! (Obscene gesture)
Sergeant at Arms: State troopers, after them!
State troopers: Too late, sorry. By the way, are you taking our bargaining rights away?
Repubs: No, you guys and firefighters are exempt. Because we like you.
News Media: Breaking news! Wisconsin state senators are hiding in another state and pro-union protesters have swarmed the Wisconsin Senate waving Egyptian flags!
American Public: WTF??

Now at this point in the story, if you’re like me, you might’ve just thought, wow, the Republicans are acting like jerks and the Democrats like children. I mean, the union-busting thing is harsh and radical, but running away and hiding out of state? Really?
But then things got more interesting:

Walker (picking up phone): Hello, who is this?
Liberal blogger: Oh hi Scott, this is David Koch, the oil tycoon who helped fund your campaign. How’s it going crushing those union bastards?
Walker: We’re holding strong. I’d be willing to talk to the Dem leader only if all 14 of them come back and sit in the assembly. When they do that we’ll have quorum, and then we can pass the bill behind their backs during the recess.
Liberal blogger: Beautiful. We’ll back you any way we can. We were thinking about planting some troublemakers in the crowd.
Walker: We thought about that, but if the protesters cause a ruckus it might make people call on me to solve the problem. Better to let them protest until the media stops finding it interesting.
Liberal blogger: Well, once you crush these bastards I’ll fly you out to Cali and really show you a good time.
Walker: Alright, that would be outstanding.

——————————-Later——————————-

Liberal blogger: Hey everybody! Listen to this prank call I recorded!
Walker: You gotta be kidding me.
American Public: WTF?
Walker: I just want to talk to the Dems…
Adm. Ackbar: It’s a TRAP!!!
Dems: What a corrupt a-hole!
Walker: Everybody calm down, I’m just doing what is necessary for the budget.
Dems: But there wasn’t a budget shortfall until you cut corporate taxes!
Wisconsin fiscal bureau: Actually, Wisconsin might end the year with a surplus.
Repubs: Blah, blah, blah, why do liberals just want to start class warfare all the time?
John Stewart: Doesn’t taking money from teachers and giving it to bankers count as class warfare?
Shep Smith of Fox News: There’s no budget crisis. This is purely political. Unions contribute big time to Democrats, so if you bust the unions, you bust the Democrats.
MSNBC: Wow, we agree with… the Fox News guy.
Walker: Big unions are dragging down the economy and getting in the way of responsible budgets.
Economists: Actually the five states prohibiting collective bargaining are in much worse budget crises than Wisconsin.
Walker: Well, I’m doing what’s best for Wisconsin.
Pollsters: A majority of Wisconsinites oppose Walker’s plan.
Dems: See, we’re not just being dicks.
News Media: The protesters are growing in number and not relenting. Protests are spreading to other states with similar measures being debated.
John Stewart: It’s the “Bizarro Tea Party” – the liberal grassroots are waking up!
Glenn Beck: These protests are part of an Islamo-socialist alliance that is spreading across the globe, starting with the revolutions in the Middle East!
American Public: WTF?
Repubs: Well we’re going to fine the Dems $100 for each day they’re absent and pass a resolution ordering their arrest!
Legal Experts: We don’t think that’s legal…
Green Bay Packers: We stand with the protesters.
Charlie Sheen: Winning!

And that pretty much wraps up the War in Wisconsin so far.

Categories: Deficit/Debt, Economy Tags: ,

A Nuclear Waste of Money

May 8th, 2010 1 comment
Nikita Krushchev

Nikita Krushchev: Scary, back in the day.

Let me tell you a story. Once upon a time, there was a nation called the Soviet Union. They wanted to bury us, which was scary. As a result, we built enough nuclear deterrents to blow them to smithereens many times over. At first we could only drop the nukes from planes. However, slow-moving bombers proved potentially easy to defend against, so we equipped missiles on Trident submarines, too. Just to be safe, we also developed land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) that could reach Moscow from Arkansas. This air-land-sea trifecta became known as the nuclear triad. Keeping each leg up to snuff became the cornerstone of U.S. nuclear deterrence strategy.

Then in 1991, the USSR officially ceased to be. A debt-ridden and war-weary United States triumphantly declared itself the victor, and with a sigh of relief began scaling back the outdated nuclear triad in favor of a more efficient and modernized military… right?

B-52 Bomber in Flight

Slow-moving bombers are no longer the best way to deliver nukes.

No. We are still paying for three different ways to obliterate a nation that no longer exists.

Each leg of the triad costs tens of billions of dollars. One of them (the planes) isn’t even practical anymore. What about Iran and North Korea, you might ask, don’t we need deterrents against them? Sure, but a handful of nukes would more than do the trick, nonetheless a tsunami of them. How about Russia? Well for starters, Russia is a heck of a lot weaker and smaller than the USSR was in its heyday. Add to that Russia’s lack of funds for military upkeep and their eagerness to scale back their own nuclear arsenal, and you have something less than a major threat.

Minuteman Missile Launch

Minuteman III missile fired in test launch

I’m not proposing gutting the military. I’m not even proposing gutting the nuclear triad. Let’s just turn it into a dyad. The Pentagon can even decide which two legs to keep (although I hope one isn’t the planes). Obviously there will be a huge pushback from whoever has to make the cut and from the contract companies involved. But it’s stupid. I know the Pentagon likes its shiny toys, but that’s money that could reduce the deficit, pay for health care, or maybe even provide proper armor for our men and women serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. The point is, during a recession with a looming deficit crisis, waste does not get to be overlooked. I don’t care if it’s health care or defense spending. Waste is waste.