Thursday, October 17, 2013

Game Theory for Congress, Work and the Devil

Now that the government is back in working order, if we can generously call it that, and we’ve dodged the debt ceiling limit bullet for several more months, I thought I might comment on a Tuesday NY Times Op-Ed piece by David McAdams, a professor of economics at Duke University and an apparent expert and author on game theory (for those who might not have read his essay, here’s a link: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/15/opinion/changing-the-debt-ceiling-game.html?_r=0&adxnnl=1&adxnnlx=1382049282-ZI8/HsNh+AWsWrOtB2vVLw).

Essentially, McAdams opined that the political parties could avoid another stalemate on the budget and debt ceiling by “limiting (their) own options.” Such a strategy “can be essential to getting others to do what you want.” It’s an interesting theory, but one I believe fails to appreciate the extreme thinking of Tea Party members. McAdams put forward a solution for practical politicians. Zealots are rarely practical. 

In the course of the reporting on the brinksmanship of the last two weeks, and the months before, it was consistently reported that “Congress,” meaning the House of Representatives, could not agree on a bi-partisan plan. It was an ingenuous characterization of reality. Reporters and TV anchors did back flips in their attempt to stay neutral, when all the world knew the hang-up came from three dozen or so Tea Party congressmen, a House leadership that did not have the backbone to keep them in check and dozens of GOP representatives who feared primaries from the Tea Party if they voted for the good of the country and not for the hysterical positions of the Yahoos of their party. 

Let’s be clear—the Tea Party minority wanted to overturn a duly enacted law. What they couldn’t win at the ballot box—not in the general election, the presidential election, or votes in Congress—they sought to negate by placing the economic vitality of the country and the world at risk. Moreover, they are not ashamed of their actions, so the threat of future disruptions is a clear and present danger which cannot be obviated by David McAdams’ game theory stratagem. 

I’m reminded of an exercise in behavior modification my former employer tried to infuse in its top editors. We gathered for an off-site workshop to learn how we could manage our time better, particularly when we had more pressing deadlines than to respond to a call from our respective publishers. It sounded good in theory, but each editor agreed that when the boss called it would be imprudent (read that, job-threatening) to resist his demand for immediate satisfaction. Real world vs. theory: real world won. Similarly, the Tea Party is not playing by the old rules. The Tea Party wants to play by its rules alone.


Old School vs. New:  It’s not just in politics that the old ways are giving way to the new. The other day sports radio discussions centered on the behavior of athletes who celebrate in-game success, be it for hitting a home run, striking out a batter, viciously dunking a ball, sacking the quarterback or scoring a goal. The Old School idea, as epitomized by Mariano Rivera, was to act as if you’ve been there before. Don’t show up your opponent. Act with decorum and respect. New School has no such restraints. If you’re excited, show it, to the fans, to your teammates, to your competition. 

As you might have surmised, I favor Old School. Could be a generational thing. I never once saw Rivera, a deeply religious man, point to the sky as if thanking God for helping him record a save. God has more important things to ponder than the outcome of a sporting event, especially when you consider each side has players invoking his assistance. So, enough with the godly appeals and heavenly thank-yous.


A Devilish Justice: As long as we’re on the subject of religion, did you hear or read about Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia’s belief in the Devil? In a recent New York magazine interview Scalia said he believes the Devil exists, a belief shared by many religious folks. 

Other than as a punch line (“The Devil made me do it,” as Flip Wilson used to say), I prefer the Jewish expression of Satan. The Devil is “a metaphor for the evil inclination – the yetzer hara – that exists in every person and tempts us to do wrong.” The Devil is not a real being.  

Scalia might very well be in concert with a majority of Americans, but as one of nine supreme deciders of the law of the land, he should, I would hope, be more rational than the rest of us. 



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