(NOTE: This is a variant of a piece below. The two pieces diverged so far that I’m leaving both up.)
The Third Breakdown of Rationality
If there are two or more possible compromises, of which the one most favored by player 1 is not the one most favored by player 2; then to choose a sure-thing strategy is to be a sucker that capitulates entirely to the other side.
Nigel Howard, Paradoxes of Rationality, MIT, 1969, p. 181
Always explain to your adversary exactly what’s at stake, because that’s the only way that you can be sure that you understand things better than he does.
Confessions of Zeno, Italo Svevo (de Zoete translation, paraphrased by me), Vintage, 1930/1958, p.89.
You gotta know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em, know when to walk away, and know when to run
“Shut up!”, he explained.
Our friends have been explaining things to us ever so kindly during the last few days: “Don’t let the best be the enemy of the good”, “politics is the art of the possible”, “politics is the art of compromise”, and just recently “We must obey he ethic of responsibility”.
Nigel Howard explains a different political principle: don’t be a sucker. Suppose that you’re planning an auction, and someone comes up and offers to save you the bother by giving you a lump sum for the lot. Should you take his offer? After all, it’s money in the hand, and if you go ahead and hold the auction you might not sell anything, or might not get good bids…. just take the offer. Right?
Wrong. If he’s a sharp guy, you’re better off with the auction. Furthermore, if you take his offer he’ll make similar offers every time, except that the offers will be successively worse, since he knows that you think auctions are a nuisance and that you don’t know how much your stuff is really worth.
This isn’t about purism vs. compromise, as many on both sides seem to think. In the end you’re going to get a compromise. This is about fighting for the best compromise.
But playing the game involves risk. In the example I just gave, over a run of auctions you’re going to come out ahead, but now and then it will happen that you would have been better off with the easy deal. If you play, sometimes you lose, but if you don’t play, in the end you lose more.
Democrats don’t want us to play. For at least the last twenty years, Democratic negotiations have been defined from the start as finding the middle, with the progressive positions surrendered even before bargaining begins. And now, one more time, we’re being advised to surrender before the game is played.
This leads to a second question: who are we bargaining with? Well, we’re not bargaining with the Republicans or the conservative Democrats — our representatives are in Congress to do that. We don’t have to figure out how to handle Joe Lieberman or Olympia Snowe or Ben Nelson or any of the other boodlers and rightwingers stinking up Congress. We’re bargaining with our own representatives in Congress, not the other side’s representatives. And in practice this means that we’re bargaining with our representatives in Congress, the Democratic leadership, and Barack Obama (as represented by Rahm Emmanuel).
We obviously shouldn’t take bargaining tips from the people we’re bargaining with. Progressive bargaining with the Democratic Party has been stuck at the “Shut up!” level for a good long time, and Obama has not changed that.
Centrists are always assuring us that they’re really on our side but are continually forced to compromise by the political realities. This is not true, however. Centrists are committed to centrism — some for ideological reasons, some for corrupt reasons, and most for both reasons. Along with the Republicans we are one of their two main adversaries, and we shouldn’t be too sure that they’d side with us at crunch time. Beating us is one of their primary goals.
Democratic pros and Republican demagogues tend to speak of progressives and intellectuals as tiny, effete, inconsequential minorities, but that’s just bullying. Progressives comprise about 15-20% of the population, and their share of the actual voters is bigger than that. College graduates make up 28% of the population and post-graduate degree-holders 10%, and these two demographics are the most likely of all to vote. The Democrats can’t win without intellectuals and progressives, but they don’t want to give us much, and that’s why we are continually having these dog-and-pony-show debates about purism and realism and moral seriousness and the ethic of responsibility and so on.
This post hasn’t really been about the health care debate, but it applies. We should play the game to the end, and make our choices piecemeal as we go along. And remember — anything less than Medicare for all counts as a compromise.
*P.S. I am often regarded as advocating anti-intellectualism, but that’s not quite right. I do think that the preponderance of the educated in the Democratic Party has had some negative effects, and I think that intellectuals in politics make far too much of their own superior intelligence. But my main message is an inclusive one. I’m mostly just asking the intelligentsia to realize that they are People too, and inviting them to come on down to join the rest of the dispossessed peasantry. A lot of adjuncts and grad students are already here.