Friday, March 19, 2010

ObamaCare End-Game Game Theory

I have no deep thoughts about the substance of President Obama's health-care scheme, but I do find the game-theory of the last few weeks (and next 60 hours) very interesting.

One of the principle failings of economic theory is that it always assumes rational actors. I don't think you can assume that many of the wavering Democrats are behaving rationally:

* By their own lights, very few people--and by definition none of the waverers--like this bill in and of itself. If the bill was self-evidently great, they wouldn't be wavering.

* There's no credible way to claim that for a wavering congressman, voting for the bill will help with their re-election. A "yes" vote might help some Democrats, but it's not going to help the swing-district Dems who have to face the music in seven months.

* There are certainly Democrats for whom even the highly-imperfect bill--with all its attendant political ramifications--would be deemed an ideological bargain at twice the price. Let's pretend for a minute that we had a Republican president and a Republican Congress poised to pass a deeply unpopular bill that would outlaw abortion. All Republicans understood that such passage would cause the GOP to lose the next three election cycles. Would many Republican office-holders make that deal? My guess is: Yes.

The problem is, the kind of Republicans who would take that bargain would be the ones who already have the best chances of re-election. For the anti-abortion bill to pass, it would need the support of more marginal Republicans ("marginal" here applying to their ideological status, not their moral worth, obvs). Mike Pence might be willing to lose his seat to outlaw abortion. But would Susan Collins or Olympia Snowe give up their jobs to pass an anti-abortion bill? I very much doubt it.

So what the president and the Congressional leadership is trying to do is persuade the marginal members of their party to act irrationally--that is, against their electoral self-interest and against their ideological bias. (I'm sure some of the wavering Dems are "for" health-care reform in the abstract, but probably not much more than moderate Republicans are abstractly "for" choosing life. And I doubt that very many of the waverers are "for" this particular health-care reform in any meaningful, ideological way.)

At the end of the day, I suppose that's what real power is: The ability to convince people to behave contrary to their best interests.


Which leads us to the end-game game theory. There are two countervailing imperatives on any remaining "undecided" congressmen.

1) Hold out as long as you can in the hope that the issue will become settled before you have to render your decision.

2) Make your decision as soon as you can so that you don't become the deciding vote, thereby putting a giant target on your back.

I'm sure John Nash could work the numbers and give us a graph showing the equilibrium point of these two equations and predicting the hour and minute at which the final congressman will make up his mind.

There is, however, one other pressure, which I assume exists, but which is not being talked about.

3) Assuming your re-election is out of reach, hold out for long as possible in the hope of extracting some iron-clad post-Congress income from the Democratic establishment or friends thereof.

It was hilarious hearing Obama threaten not to campaign for "no" Democrats earlier this week. Any Democrat who has to even consider voting "no" is going to run as far away from Obama as possible come November. This president is going to be electoral poison in vulnerable districts. What I assumed Obama's threat implicitly meant was this: The president is not going to take care of any "no" Democrat who loses in November.

When people euphemistically talk about the leadership trying to "change minds" I assume they're not just referring to government pork for the district.


Speaking of, Marjorie Margolies-Mazvinsky--who did okay for herself after doing a kamikaze for her party--had a charming op-ed the other day telling Democrats that she was glad, in retrospect, that she voted for the Clinton '93 budget, lost her seat, "saved" the presidency, etc. I wonder if she really means that.

By which I mean this: By their own lights, would Democrats really trade the first 2 years of the Clinton presidency for the 12 years that followed it? You can't make a straight-line projection from the 1993 tax increase to the 1994 Republican re-alignment, but they're closely related. If you're a Democrat who believes that the Republican Congress which existed more or less from 1994 to 2006 and did all sorts of dreadful things to the country--welfare "reform", tax cuts, war authorization, rolling back women's reproductive rights, et al--might have been avoided by tanking the 1993 tax increase, wouldn't you jump at the chance to go back in time and re-do that vote?


For vote counts, Fire Dog Lake seems pretty good (which is to say, both well-researched and modest) as does The Hill.


TubbyLover69 said...

To build on a couple points:

1. "There are two countervailing imperatives on any remaining 'undecided' congressmen."

I think there's a third imperative in play here. If you're confident of re-election, you can still try to game the timing, playing chicken with the president. And from Iran to Russia to health care, this president has proven that he'll usually fold first.

So, you want to maximize concessions from the administration before you promise up your vote. Call it the Ben Nelson strategy. The longer you play, the higher the returns, but the more dangerous it gets. Once the whips don't need you, you've lost a lot of leverage--depending on how confident they are, maybe all of your leverage--and you're now on the party's shit list.

2. "Assuming your re-election is out of reach, hold out for long as possible in the hope of extracting some iron-clad post-Congress income from the Democratic establishment or friends thereof."

Tom Coburn announced yesterday that he will put holds on any Democratic House member who (a) flips from No to Yes, loses reelection, and starts looking for a Senate-approved position; and (b) will block any suspicious earmarks for districts where Nos are flipped to Yes.

Now, just because these guys won't be Ambassador to Slovenia doesn't mean that they can't be taken care of in other ways. There's always a Vernon Jordan out there. But it's not something Obama can directly control--and the Reps must know that.

But we'll see.

Unknown said...

Two things:

1. The difference b/w this effort and the 1993 tax increases is that this is, I think, a game-changer when it comes to American politics. The reason that the Dems think they can afford to ignore the polls is because once this is passed they believe (with good reason, I suspect) that the conversation will then turn to the sort they have in the UK: how much will you spend? What are the details here? Etc. This is a structural change in the American polity.

2. There's also the "you'll never work in this town again" dynamic: no doubt Rahm has told wavering Dems that if they don't vote for it and they lose, they won't be able to run for so much as dog-catcher. It might not be a real threat (or one that could be enforced) but no doubt it could be a part of the calculation.