Alex Richey

Software Engineer @ Amazon

The Lame Duck Dilemma

There has been no shortage of articles declaring that the lame duck congress is intransigent. Paul Krugman of the New York Times, for example, writes that the most striking feature of Obama’s presidency is not his management of the troubled economy, but “the scorched-earth opposition of Republicans.” Perhaps the most salient episode of Republican opposition occurred last summer, when Republicans threatened a government shut-down by posturing to deny raising the debt-ceiling and reduced the nation’s credit rating in the process.

It hardly seems questionable that the obstinate voting patterns of (largely Republican) congresspeople are harming the nation and slowing its economic recovery. But why is this so? Why is obstructionism so detrimental? I think that a surprising amount of insight can be gained from considering a famous ethical case called the prisoner’s dilemma.

Imagine that you and your accomplice are arrested while robbing the bank. You are placed in separate isolation cells. Later, a prosecutor interviews you and your accomplice separately and makes the following offer to each of you: “If you confess and your accomplice remains silent, then I will use your testimony to ensure that your accomplice will be imprisoned for six years while you’ll get off scott free. If, on the other hand, your accomplice confesses and you are silent, then you will serve the six year sentence and your partner will go free. If you both confess then you’ll both go to prison, but I can guarantee an early parole so that you’ll both serve five years each. Finally, if neither of you confesses, I’ll have no case. However, you’ll both go to prison for a mere two years for whatever charges — like firearm possession and trespassing — I can scrape together.”

The crux of the prisoner’s dilemma is that the effectiveness of your decision is entirely dependent on your partner’s decision. If you both choose to cooperate with each other by remaining silent, then overall jail-time is minimized; whereas if you both defect from each other by confessing, then overall jail-time is maximized. But if one of you defects while the other makes the cooperative move, then one person gets off scott free while the other is totally screwed over. From a purely self-interested point of view, this is the best case.

What is the connection between all this and the lame duck congress? I think that there is an analogy between the two prisoners of the dilemma and the Republican and Democratic parties, where their actions over the last four years roughly correspond to the case in which overall jail-time is maximized.

Consider, for example, last summer’s debt bill or the more recent Obamacare bill. In both cases, the bills that were finally passed by congress were marred in that they contained legislation that neither party really wanted. The debt bill did not raise any new revenue and cut $2.1 trillion over the next ten years in both domestic and military spending — an outcome favorable to neither party and whose efficacy in reducing that national debt is still dubious. The Obamacare bill was also tarnished by the removal of the public option, which would have easily made the bill fiscally sound. The resulting healthcare bill is reportedly so abstruse that there is still a question as to how it will impact the country when fully implemented.

Indeed better bills might have been passed if Republicans and Democrats had cooperated with each other. That involves each party’s taking on a small amount of jail-time in the form of compromises so that overall jail-time is minimized.

That outcome, however, is unlikely to happen because of one major respect in which the current state of congress and the prisoner’s dilemma differ. In the textbook prisoner’s dilemma, you don’t know what your partner will choose to do and that information would affect your decision. In politics, you do know what your partner will choose. It’s no secret that the Republicans continually choose to defect on certain issues. The Democrats are well aware of this and are forced to respond by defecting also, since otherwise they would serve the maximal jail-time by allowing Republicans to have their way in congress without opposition. However, the Democrats, for their part, also cause Republicans to defect by refusing to yield on other issues, like the Keystone Pipeline and Fracking, for instance.

The problem with this outcome is that when both parties choose to defect, the overall jail-time is maximized. There is constant conflict that is borne by both parties and, more importantly, by the American people. This makes the refusal to cooperate totally irrational, since the well-being of a nation consists not in the well-being of one party over another, but in the well-being of its people, which is affected by the amiability of both parties. As Bill Clinton said in his speech at the Democratic National Convention last Wednesday, “What works in the real world is cooperation.” But if Republicans and Democrats continue to be implacable, we can continue to expect maximal jail-time.