Thursday, July 14, 2011

Playing Vicarious Chicken

As far as I can tell, the idea that the debt-ceiling negotiations are a matter of “playing chicken with the full faith and credit of the United States” originated in a White House talking point meant to allege irresponsibility on the part of Republican politicians. Yesterday, I argued that’s a misleading comparison in two pretty obvious respects, both of which inclined me to believe that a budget deal of some sort is in the offing before August 2.

First, chicken is a game that consists in a single play with four possible outcomes—either one player, the other player, both players or neither player swerves off their collision course. Yet the people negotiating over the debt ceiling today know that they’ll be negotiating with each other about something else countless times in the future. That means that, insofar as they’re rational, both sides will worry about how their conduct in this negotiation will affect future negotiations. That ought to make them more circumspect about forfeiting the other’s trust and good will.

Second, chicken is a zero-sum game in which one side’s gains are the other side’s losses. Yet the parties negotiating over the debt ceiling are trying to secure a mutually advantageous outcome where each can measure the extent to which it has promoted its own budgetary objectives in dollars and cents. That gives each side the incentive to conceal their readiness to compromise for the time being, but to become more flexible as the August 2 deadline approaches.

The fact that none of this is rocket science raises a question: why are so many spectators acting nonetheless like they’re watching a game of chicken, waiting breathlessly to see which side will betray its timidity by swerving off the collision course? We can extract the beginnings of an answer out of reports (see the links collected here) that Obama walked away from the bargaining table in a huff yesterday to show his displeasure with Eric Cantor. That we know about this “fact” at all owing to the zeal of Cantor and unnamed Democratic sources to run to the press to tell us all about it is as important as the “fact” itself.

I still can’t believe that Obama and Cantor are adolescent enough really to be playing chicken. But I have to admit both seem perfectly happy to impersonate a chicken-player for the benefit of their respective bases. Cantor apparently went out his way to let everyone know that the president got “agitated” after Cantor challenged his authority to preside over the debt-ceiling negotiations by insisting that they discuss a short-term deal. Obama apparently made sure everyone heard that he’d told Cantor that “this may bring down my presidency, but I won’t yield” on that point. If this were just standard negotiating practice meant to impress negotiators on the other side Cantor and Obama wouldn’t have been so anxious to tell us about it inasmuch as the fact that we now all know it will make it a little harder to get a deal done.

The people who really play chicken can only be in it for the glory. Neither driver wants to die in a head-on collision, but each is willing to risk it to prove that he's braver than the other driver. But prove it to whom? Evidently, not just to himself. It would never occur to anyone to play chicken in the first place unless they already thought they were braver than the other driver.  The point of playing is to make the other driver swerve upon the realization that he’s the chicken. The reward for winning is the pleasure of seeing the recognition of your superiority flash across the loser’s eyes.

That means that chicken-players can up the stakes by playing not on some deserted road, but before a gallery of attentive spectators. That way, each player’s superiority/inferiority will be reflected back at him from many eyes. It’s easy to imagine Obama and Cantor both caring some about other people seeing them humble the other, but not caring enough about it to risk a head-on crash that would imperil not only the nation but their political future.

What’s in it for the people watching Obama and Cantor pretend to play chicken? Most of them aren’t watching disinterestedly, just to find out which guy has a higher tolerance for risk. They’re watching closely because they’re not only taking a rooting interest in the game, but playing it vicariously. That’s why they’ve put the guy negotiating in their behalf under a microscope looking for signs of betrayal. Conservatives desperately want to see liberals betray recognition of their ideological inferiority and liberals are just as desperate to see a glimmer of recognition in conservative eyes that conservatives are dumber, and less public-spirited, than liberals.

That makes Obama and Cantor’s game of chicken a little like professional wrestling.  I hope that I'm not doing Hulk Hogan a disservice by saying that.

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