Thursday, February 9, 2017

The mess in the Senate: When winning isn't enough

The blow-up in the Senate over Elizabeth Warren and the Coretta Scott King letter shows an interesting point that many of my colleagues who do "rational choice theory" just don't get.  It isn't just about outcomes.

Game theorists approach the study of politics (or, more commonly, economics) by writing out 1) everybody's "utility functions," which tell you how happy everybody would be with any given outcome, then 2) what everyone's possible choices are at any given decision point, and then 3) they deduce what everyone will do based on the assumption that everyone wants to maximize their own utility.

And then we get stuff like what just happened in the Senate over the Sessions nomination.  Sessions was going to be confirmed.  Republicans had the votes.  They even had Joe Manchin, the Democrat from West Virginia.  It was a done deal.  Democrats wanted to make symbolic statements against him, but they didn't have the votes to defeat him.  Fine.  What does game theory say about this?  It says there is no game.

Thank you, Bill.  Game over.  Republicans won.  But that wasn't enough.  The rules against impugning another senator are odd and selectively enforced.  McConnell chose a strange time to enforce them, and cut Warren off.  Strategically, what was the value of enforcing them in this case?  Nothing.

I question the self-congratulatory liberal nonsense that this backfires for Republicans.  Any moment now, the 9th Circuit will rule on the entry ban, we will soon have Supreme Court hearings on Gorsuch, and Trump is due to distract everyone with something inflammatory in about three seconds, which takes the spotlight off of this little dustup even if it does make McConnell look petty.  This shit doesn't matter.  At all.  It simply demonstrates a basic point:  people acting on emotion rather than recognizing their strategic situation.

McConnell had won.  Warren wanted to read a letter?  So fucking what?  A rational actor would have let her.  An emotional one didn't.

See what I did there on gender?


  1. Some folks are arguing that McConnell is so strategic that he's trying to boost Warren for 2020, thinking she's easy to beat.

    I tend to lump that in with all the claims that Trump is a genius for manipulating the media to elect him. Functionalist bullshit.