Game Theory and the GOP

There have been numerous indications of nascent GOP obstructionism for Obama’s policies, many of them signaled by members of Republican leadership in the House and Senate.  I’m sure I’m not the only one who anticipates with dread the type of foot-dragging, nit-picking, fear-mongering, game-playing and other tactics the Republicans seem to have perfected.  Why, I can hear the Mighty Wurlitzer winding up as I type this.

Much of Obama’s agenda, even including urgent items associated with economic stimulus, will meet with a united front in the Senate and House.

But it is, overall, a zero-sum game that Republicans are bound to lose.

What does this have to do with game theory?  I’m glad you asked.

According to Wikipedia,

Game theory attempts to mathematically capture behavior in strategic situations, in which an individual’s success in making choices depends on the choices of others.

Arguably the best-known game studied by game theorists is Prisoner’s Dilemma.  Again, quoting Wikipedia:

Two suspects are arrested by the police. The police have insufficient evidence for a conviction, and, having separated both prisoners, visit each of them to offer the same deal. If one testifies (“defects”) for the prosecution against the other and the other remains silent, the betrayer goes free and the silent accomplice receives the full 10-year sentence. If both remain silent, both prisoners are sentenced to only six months in jail for a minor charge. If each betrays the other, each receives a five-year sentence. Each prisoner must choose to betray the other or to remain silent. Each one is assured that the other would not know about the betrayal before the end of the investigation. How should the prisoners act?

In the case of the GOP’s planned obstruction of actions pledged by President-elect Obama, it will only take one prominent elected Republican, surrogate, or influential group to topple the united front.  Once someone (or someones) from the Right is induced to engage with Obama on some issue, and it hardly matters who it is or what the particular issue is, you’ll see the logjam break.

Faced with a Democratically controlled White House, Senate, and House, it’s hard to imagine how the strict discipline that has characterized the Republicans over the last several years can continue to resist any and all cracks.  Someone, somewhere, will become fearful enough about his/her own prospects for reelection, receive sufficient constituent pressure, be ridiculed enough in public, or perhaps even respond to his/her conscience to “break”.

While game theory, and particularly the Prisoner’s Dilemma game, was hardly my main focus of academic study, I was unfortunately sufficiently exposed to research in the area and have enough direct experience running zero-sum games as training exercises, to understand that someone always folds.  It’s inevitable.

Whether the break will occur around healthcare reform, economic stimulus efforts, global warming, or some other issue is unclear.  Perhaps someone more intimately engaged in policy specifics and the politics surrounding them would care to offer a compelling argument one way or another.  But the break cannot help but occur.

As I write this, I realize that what Obama and his team are attempting is the same sort of divisive politics practiced by the GOP for years.  Only in this case the objective is to implement a progressive agenda rather than the GOP’s version which is generally directed at ensuring their success at the next election.

[I am fully cognizant that at least one of our regular commenters will take me to task about whether the GOP’s strategy has been driven by fervent belief in the party’s platform or by political cynicism.  Before the onslaught begins, however, let me just point out that doing so will signal that he or she has completely missed the point and is focusing, instead, on a false and unnecessary pillar of my argument.]

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