Monday, November 8, 2010

Politics as a Game

The fact that the new Majority Leader is being asked political horse-race questions, and not about policy, got me thinking about the political 'game'.

When I was in Middle School some friends of mine tried to invent a strategy role-playing game. Part of the premise is that the players would act like ancient demi-gods, building worlds in competition with other demi-god characters, like mythological ancient Greece. The game was pretty fun for a group of creative 12 year olds, but there turned out to be a structural flaw in the game: it was much easier to destroy than it was to create.

This was a product of us trying to be realistic. The reality is that in the world it is easier to destroy than it is to create. As a result we have to create artificial costs for destroying things. It's pretty easy to burn a house down, but then we send you to jail. It's not something we usually think about, but if burning a house down somehow cost more than building a house (and filling it with stuff), then arson wouldn't be a problem.

But, the game my friends created was about demi-gods, there were basically no repercussions, there were no higher ups to enforce a set of rules. This was because whoever was 'winning' was the de facto higher up.

The problem in the game wasn't discovered for awhile. Several of us played the game in good for quite some time. Focusing on building cities, continents and worlds. That was, after all, the 'purpose' of the game. But, eventually we added new players, and a couple of these new players identified the 'flaw.' They didn't try to create anything at all, they only focussed on destruction, and it was impossible to compete. The end result was they 'won', but I'm not really sure what they won, because we all just stopped playing the game.

It seems to me that we face this in today's politics. Like the rest of the world, it is easier to destroy political ideas than it is to create them. It's no mystery why the Republicans refused to propose a health care law of their own during the Obamacare debate. Some of use seemed to hope that there would be repercussions for these tactics. That a refusal by the right wing noise machine to create anything would eventually cost them something. This is because we are used to our world operating this way, like the arson example. However, the political scenario is more akin to my childhood game. Because the winners get the set the rules.

If destroying things gets you tv ratings and political seats, then who will administer the repercussions? Not the media, because it's best strategy is also to destroy. Not the politicians, they also should be destroying.

I could run a rant about how people should do this, or need to do that, but I'm trying not to end political thoughts with a generic desire that the world needs to be different. Instead, we should consider what structural changes might solve these problems. What policy do we implement in order to encourage policy creation?

One idea is to require more from the minority in the form of bill proposals. I'm not sure why both parties in Congress shouldn't be required to propose a budget.

A second idea I have been pondering is the possibility of bracket style policy decision making. What if some policy decisions were made as a decision between A and B, instead of between A and nothing. One possible way this could work is through a series of brackets. Congress decides on a particular issue like Healthcare. Political bodies propose eight main healthcare bills, after consideration. Then these bills are voted on as competing alternatives, in a series of votes, that works like a tournament.

Clearly, this couldn't be used in every case, but I think serious political gridlock requires a re-thinking of some aspects of the system. It's pretty clear that a group of people have figured out the flaws in 'politics'. One of those flaws is that you can sit back and attack without any genuine repercussion.

1 comment:

  1. I think you're underplaying a bit how one-sided this is. Themistocles and I were arguing to what extent the Democrats can use similar obstructionist tactics and I argued it's pretty heavily limited by the fact that our side actually wants to get something done. We see a positive role for government and that means we can't just say no all the time. We can say no more than we do -- we don't have to confirm Alito or some whacko right wing circuit judge, but at the end of the day we understand that if appeals can't get a speedy trial because all the judge nominations are held up in the approval process, or if the treasury department doesn't have enough officials to carry out its day-to-day business, that the end result of that is going to be that people lose faith in government. And that's precisely what the other side wants.

    This asymmetry is what makes it hard to imagine the other side ever going for procedural changes that make it easier for governing to get done, even when they're in the majority and theoretically doing the governing. Our saving grace is that they might just be myopic enough to fall for these tricks anyway -- see the nuclear option fight of the early 2000's -- if only we could have that back! But I worry, as was the case then, that our side is too myopic to take the opportunity when given.