Takes two to entangle

Nate Silver has an interesting post about how the space for compromise in the House is dwindling along with the number of swing seats, as more districts than ever are hyper partisan.

It’s an interest piece and I think one quote in particular is informative for how we ought to view the causes of going over the cliff, if in fact we do so.

So why is compromise so hard in the House? Some commentators, especially liberals, attribute it to what they say is the irrationality of Republican members of Congress.

But the answer could be this instead: individual members of Congress are responding fairly rationally to their incentives. Most members of the House now come from hyperpartisan districts where they face essentially no threat of losing their seat to the other party. Instead, primary challenges, especially for Republicans, may be the more serious risk.

Contracts are at least a bilateral transaction. Basic microeconomic theory would tell you that the failure to come to an agreement means that there was no equilibrium along two contract utility curves. The somewhat tautological common sense version is “when two parties fail to agree, it’s because they can’t agree.”

But politics is irrational and defies this logic. And while I have no sympathy for Republicans and their inability to steer the narrative in their favor, it seems completely wrong for intelligent individuals to place blame on them for no deal being done. Ironically the most rational people are the Republicans who recognize their electoral prospects suffer by striking a deal.

In our minds we all want to say to ourselves that getting re-elected isn’t the end goal. Our politicians should ideally be selfless in the name of averting going over the cliff.

That’s a lot to ask in reality of people who have to go to stand for election every two years. But guess who doesn’t have to do that? The President. Doubtless, Obama has a legacy to protect. But he will likely never run for office again. If anyone has less of an incentive to be selfish, it’s him. And because the modern presidency is often a position of herding Congressional cats and forcing compromise, I would go so far as to say the person most responsible for us going over the cliff is Barack Obama.

But the average American seems to buy into the Republican blame game. If they took the rational view, there would be culpability all around. But with the narrative so dead-set against the other side, why would the President want to flex his muscle to do the right thing?

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