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deficits and Congress

John Boehner has spent the last several days moving his budget proposal to the right in hopes of grabbing a few more Tea Party votes, so he can pass something that is guaranteed to fail in the Senate, and if it miraculously passed the Senate, would face a Presidential veto.

With the same amount of effort, he could move his budget proposal to the center in hopes of grabbing an equal number of Democratic votes (which, last I checked, are worth just as much in the House as Tea Party votes). And then he'd have something that would have a chance of passing the Senate (or at least giving it heartburn), and a chance of not being vetoed.

[ETA 4 PM: Mitch McConnell, I think, says "Speaker Boehner has been working very hard to develop a plan that can actually pass the House of Representatives and thus end this crisis." Because we all know, once something passes the House of Representatives, it becomes law.]

In fact, I suspect there are more Democrats in the center than there are Tea Partiers in the right wing of the House, so once he reaches the threshold of being even remotely acceptable to Democrats, each inch of move to the center should, on average, gain more votes than it loses.

But I guess it's more politically valuable (e.g. in fending off primary challengers) to produce something that the party can agree on than to produce something that can become law.

Or maybe he's assuming that, at five minutes to midnight, Senate Democrats and Obama will back down and pass whatever he gives them rather than go into default. Which they might well do. In the game of chicken, reasonability is punished and inflexibility is rewarded.

Most of you have heard of the Prisoner's Dilemma game. What's distinctive about Prisoner's Dilemma is the inequality
T > R > P > S
where T, the "temptation", is what you get if you defect and the other guy cooperates;
R, the "reward", is what you get if both parties cooperate;
P, the "punishment", is what you get if both parties defect; and
S, the "sucker's payoff", is what you get if you cooperate and the other guy defects.
In a single round, single instance Prisoner's Dilemma, there is absolutely no reason to cooperate; the winning strategy is to defect.
As most of you know, the most generally successful and robust strategy for iterated Prisoner's Dilemma is "Tit for Tat": cooperate initially, and thereafter do whatever the other guy did last time. Or in human terms, be nice on first meeting someone; if they're nasty, retaliate in kind, and if they become nice again, forgive them immediately.

The game of Chicken is quite similar, except that
T > R > S > P
In other words, cooperating when the other guy defects is preferable to the mutual annihilation that happens when both players defect. The result of this difference is that once I've demonstrated my willingness to defect frequently, you're better off cooperating than defecting -- which reinforces my willingness to defect in the future. We end up with a lasting and asymmetrical dominance/submission hierarchy, very different from the symmetrical Tit for Tat situation.

Another game probably has a name but I haven't found it, so let's call it Mine. In this game,
T > P > R > S
The "punishment" for mutual defection is actually preferable to mutual cooperation; in other words, my payoff is determined mostly by my own behavior, and only incidentally by yours (hence the name). Obviously, a winning strategy is to always defect, because even if I somehow get you to cooperate, that doesn't make much difference in my outcome.

As I pointed out on a newspaper blog somewhere, if we want our politicians to act more like "tit for tat", we need to convince them that they're in a game of Prisoner's Dilemma, rather than a game of Chicken or Mine or something else. To persuade them that we're in Prisoner's Dilemma rather than Mine, we need to convince all sides that default is worse than mutual compromise. (I'm not sure the Tea Partiers believe this.) To persuade them that we're in Prisoner's Dilemma rather than Chicken, we need to convince all sides that default is better than caving in to an uncompromising opponent. (I'm not sure the D's believe this -- or, more importantly, that the R's believe that the D's believe this.)


Mine is an interesting variation.

One of the problems in the current political system is the nature of the reward structure appears to have changed. Decisionmakers used to consider reward in a more complex way, defined in terms of individual as well as team achievement. The current structure, which selects for team identity rather than individual accomplishment, appears to alter the dynamic.
I'm not sure it selects for accomplishment at all; it selects primarily for behavior itself. If you act "alpha", standing firm against the bad guys, you get re-elected, regardless of whether you actually get anything done.

We're seeing in the House today precisely the opposite of what you're saying: Tea Party types acting in the interest of their individual re-election, against the wishes of their team leaders like Boehner.
I am in haste, so will need to describe better what I mean at another time.