Wednesday, August 23, 2017

A government shutdown over the border wall?

There are so many things one could say about the Phoenix rally, but I'll focus on the Congress side because I may as well do that...

So, quick reminder.  Fiscal years run October to October.  Like academic years, but different.  Congress has to pass either appropriations bills, continuing resolutions (which extend the previous appropriations, making minor modifications), or something like that, or government agencies don't get their money, and they can't pay employees, contractors, etc.  They "shut down."  First, janitors don't show up to collect the trash every day, and trash builds up unless everyone else takes out the garbage.  Then, more and more essential personnel get "furloughed," and eventually, real problems occur as the bank accounts of various agencies run dry.  How bad it gets depends on the agency and the specific personnel.  The longer a shutdown goes on, the more people notice the inconvenience.  Shutdowns really start to inconvenience people within a couple of weeks.  Since the public doesn't like inconvenience, shutdowns are rare because somebody takes the blame, and nobody likes taking the blame.  Shutdown politics are a game of chicken.  More on that momentarily...

Anyway, Trump has gone back to the idea that he will force a government shutdown if Congress doesn't pony up money for his border wall.  You know, the one that he begged Nieto to stop saying Mexico wouldn't fund, and that even Trump admitted wasn't important?  Yeah, that one!

Let's pause for a moment to appreciate the fact that Trump's central campaign promise was to make Mexico pay for the wall, and now he is threatening to veto any spending bills that don't include US taxpayer funding for the wall, which he has admitted in private is unimportant and begged Nieto to stop saying Mexico won't fund.  Now everyone really is laughing at America...

OK, continuing.  Here's how the "game of chicken" works.  Two players drive towards each other.  Whoever swerves is a chicken.  Whoever doesn't swerve gets bragging rights.  If both players swerve, they're both chickens, but that isn't as bad as being the only chicken.  Both players make their choice simultaneously.  So, here's the game.  Higher numbers are better payoffs, and the first number is the payoff for the player choosing the row, by tradition.


There are two "Nash equilibria."  Drive/Swerve, and Swerve/Drive.  Those combinations of strategies meet the following criterion:  neither player can do better given what the other player is doing.

Shutdown games are games of chicken.  Trump wants money for his border wall.  Actually, he doesn't give a shit about the wall, as we learned from the Nieto call-- he just can't back away from his campaign promise, but he is willing to back away from who pays for it, and will stick us with the tab, since he never pays any taxes anyway.  Congress... not so much.  A shutdown, though, has the potential to hurt either Congress or Trump.  That's the Drive/Drive outcome.  Each side wants to make the other back down.  Chicken.

Here's the catch.  This... doesn't happen in unified government.  Why?  Because there's only one party to take the blame.  The... party... of the... president.  Shutdown showdowns happen in divided government, like in 1995, or 2013.  Why?  Because there needs to be a chance that voters will blame the other side, and voters are simple-minded, partisan critters.  Right now, voters hate Trump.  His approval rating is below 40.  But, Congress is controlled by the same party, and whatever happens, they're all kind of fucked.  In 1995, when Newt Gingrich and Bill Clinton went into battle, they were of different parties.  There was a chance that Gingrich could have won.  He didn't, but the fact that they were of opposing parties meant that the partisan structure of the conflict could have come out differently.

Fun fact:  there have been occasional shutdowns throughout history in unified government.  They usually last a day or two.  Congress misses a deadline, and then rushes a bill through.  You just never notice.  This, though?  This would be fucking nuts, all around.  Actual games of chicken risk actual death.  Only people truly fucking stupid, drunk or otherwise mentally incapacitated play the game, which makes it odd that we use the structure in rational choice theory.  The analogy to budgetary games only works because with something like a government shutdown, the chance that one side actually escapes blame means that Clinton and Gingrich could go into the situation in 1995 thinking that they could win even with the shutdown occurring.  Clinton did.

If an actual shutdown happens over this wall, with Trump and a Republican Congress, who wins?  Democrats.  Ryan and McConnell are smart enough to understand this.  I doubt Trump is.  What does that mean for the actual appropriations process?  I have no idea.

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