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doomsday bombs and triggers

During the Cold War, there was a lot of talk about "the doomsday bomb". Stanley Kubrick made a movie about it, "Dr. Strangelove, or: How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the Bomb". The idea was to build a weapon so scary that the threat of using it would force politicians to actually negotiate and make peace. The conceit of the Kubrick movie is that some Air Force general didn't "get" that point, thought it was actually intended to be used, and did.

A doomsday bomb only works if it's scary enough that none of the people involved in the negotiations actually wants it to go off. If some of them do, i.e. if (for some of the players) actually using the bomb is preferable to negotiating, those players have no incentive to negotiate because they can get what they want by sitting on their hands and obstructing. So the lesson is: if you're building a doomsday device, you'd better make it really scary, inflicting unacceptable damage on all sides.

I'm reminded of this by the current Washington discussion about "deficit triggers". The idea is to pass a law that says "if the deficit hasn't decreased by such-and-such amount by such-and-such year, such-and-such measures will happen automatically," and this threat hanging over Congress's heads will force them to actually solve the deficit problem. The problem is defining "such-and-such measures": these measures have to be scary enough that nobody actually wants them to happen. If one significant faction in Congress actually wants those measures to happen, that faction won't negotiate, and will actively obstruct agreement by anybody else.

Of course, if you have a choice, you really want to be in that faction so you don't have to bargain anything away, you don't have to compromise. Compromise is for the people who didn't write the rules. So every individual member of Congress will try to make the trigger do what that member actually wants to happen, which coincidentally is also exactly what that member will do in negotiating an actual budget.

In other words, if the people designing the trigger are the same people it's supposed to threaten, then creating a "trigger" mechanism doesn't actually change the political calculus at all; its only effect is to apply today's political calculus to determine what happens several years from now. So, cui bono? The people who benefit from passing a trigger mechanism are precisely those who are politically powerful right now, but fear that they might be less powerful in a few years.


Sorry, but you know too much. The men in black will be at your door soon. ;-)