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February 28, 2011

Playing Five Card Shutdown

For a while, pundits were warning that the government of the sole remaining superpower (and the owner of the most nuclear weapons in the world) was going to shut down the office later this week. This appeals to the miscreant in me. Don't like government? Let's take it away and see how that works for you.

Shutdown is a game of brinksmanship. Each side teases the other, provokes the other, rattles their saber a bit. The spirit that makes brinksmanship effective is that each side implicitly recognizes that the other is rational and that nobody really wants to jump off the cliff.

It's a lot like mutual assured destruction as a nuclear strategy. Russia knows our missiles will survive a first strike, we know their missiles will survive a first strike, and so we've ensured peace by making a first strike irrational.

That "rational player game theory" stuff got us and Russia through fifty years, and then a funny thing happened: new players joined the game, and they might not be as rational as the old school guys who shared the mutual flick. They might even be in Pakistan or North Korea. I don't feel so good about playing Mutual Assured Destruction with North Korea.

The same flaw in the brinksmanship game becomes evident when you play Government Shutdown. Back in the day, the Republicans and the Democrats knew that the country would blame both parties for a shutdown. The Nation would see it as a failure of leadership, an abdication of responsibility. Nobody would win, so nobody would start it.

Then some new players showed up who flirted with the unthinkable. Maybe they could survive a first strike. Maybe they could shut the government down. Gosh, we'd get some good press! We'd appeal to the base! It might be a lot like Humpty Dumpty; it's easy to shut it down, it's hard to make it work.

It makes me nervous when irrational people start playing with complex, important things. It scares me when irrational people start considering the unacceptable as a strategic goal; you never know where they'll stop once they get off the reservation.

In this year's circus, the Tea Party crowd has promised to shut it down. The Dems might like to have the Republicans shut it down; it makes them seem like grownups. The older Republicans might like watching the New Kids stub their toes. At least one writer has suggested that Shutdown is a win-win for all involved.

This last week a few things left me 95% sure that the odds are over 80% that these fools are actually going to jump over the brink; this in spite of the fact that people all around the world are getting killed resisting dictators, and maybe this would be a good month for democracy to play nice in front of the new kids.
  • The Republicans said they don't want a shutdown
  • The Democrats said they don't want a shutdown
  • Newt said we shouldn't have a shutdown, unless it's the only alternative to House Republicans losing their integrity
  • somebody proposed a two-week Shutdown Buffer, which was considered a master stroke of leadership
  • Newt Gingrich explained, The last big shutdown was a victory
  • Frank Rich asked, Why Wouldn't They Shut It Down?

Karl Popper's turkey taught me that the past does not predict the future. I do know that if you stay around long enough, you get to see a few variations on the theme and you can appreciate the differences among them.

So, just in case our Leaders manage to jump off the cliff, here's a picture of the perpetrators of a previous Shutdown celebrating; you might caption it, "The Usual Suspects".

Newt Gingrich, John Boehner, John Mica, April 7 1995.
You remember what Milan Kundera said, right?


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