Review of The Graduate School of Political Management: The Legislative Affairs Master’s Program

Mar 19 2016

When I was researching graduate school programs in 2011, I found comprehensive reviews of programs rare, if not non-existent.  I write this review so that those researching programs can have an additional data point about this program.

The unofficial motto of The George Washington University’s Graduate School of Political Management is that “politics trumps policy.”  After interning on a congressional campaign and then on the Hill, I believed this to be true.  I had been looking at political science and public policy graduate programs, but ultimately chose this program after sitting in on a class on budgets taught by Professor Mark Strand.  It was clear that policy will not be made into law on merits alone.  With the mission of understanding politics through application, I matriculated in Fall 2012.

If you take away nothing else, take away this: you will get out of this program what you put into it.  This statement is hardly unique to this graduate program, but it is important to understand that you can get a degree from this program without having much to show for it.  The program is a great opportunity to facilitate your learning and exploration of the applied political process.  Seize the opportunity whenever you are able.  Of course, nearly all students in the Legislative Affairs program are also working full-time jobs, so making time can be challenging.  Nonetheless, put in the effort and you will get back the knowledge, skills, and network that this program advertises.

Professors and the Classroom

Nearly all of the professors in the Legislative Affairs program are adjuncts.  Normally this would be a troubling sign for a graduate school program, but in this case the adjuncts are an asset.  They all have applied political experience and most hold a full-time-plus job concurrent with teaching.  Their knowledge runs deep and their network runs broad.  They may invite influential guest speakers to class, or take a fieldtrip to visit a powerful committee on the Hill.  While they are all experts in their fields, their teaching abilities can be hit or miss.  Expertise in a subject does not necessarily qualify one as a teacher.  Certainly any program will have its share of lackluster instruction, but it seems that teaching experience is not retained within the program.  That said, there are some great professors, so seek them out and take their classes, regardless of what subject they teach.

Class sizes were challenging at times, especially in the Fall semester.  The school runs a program for Army Fellows who complete their degree over the Summer and Fall semesters.  (I don’t know how they are able to squeeze a two year program into that little amount of time, but they do, and it’s impressive!).  So during the Fall semester, class sizes can swell to thirty or more students.  That’s quite large for a graduate school class and limits the opportunities for class discussion and debate.  Ideally, class sizes would be more around ten or fifteen students.  On the plus side, the Army Fellows help diversify the opinions and perspectives offered in the classes.

Classes run two hours, usually from 6pm – 8pm, which after a full day of work is just about the most a student can focus.  The classrooms themselves are rented generic meeting rooms at the Hall of States, which is convenient for those working on or near the Hill, and easy enough to get to for those who don’t.  The rooms are dull meeting spaces, most without windows, and generally non-distracting (i.e. boring).  The larger rooms are long and narrow, and thus not well suited for large class sizes.  The facilities are well maintained, the chairs are comfortable, and occasionally there are other hosted functions wrapping up around 6pm that have leftover appetizers or cookies lying around.

The option is available to take other GSPM courses or even other GWU courses as electives.  These will be at GWU’s main campus and cost significantly more tuition to partake in.  I took one which I found worthwhile, but the Legislative Affairs program offered enough interesting courses that I spent the remainder of my credits on its courses.

Overall, the academic environment is good enough with a few outstanding moments (those professors you love, those students with whom you connected deeply over some wonky topic, etc).

The Optional Thesis

As part of the Master’s program, students can write a thesis instead of two additional classes.  The thesis is work of original research and runs around a hundred pages.  I chose the option so that I could cultivate deep knowledge of a topic and so that I could create opportunities to meet and work with some amazing people.  I also wanted to have the experience of writing a thesis: emersion in a topic, working closely with an advisor, and creating the most substantive academic product of my career thus far.  My experience writing my thesis at GSPM was sorely disappointing.  The thesis program was plagued by systemic disorganization, lack of transparency, and unenthusiasm by those running it.

Throughout the effort I was confused on the thesis process.  I met with the Legislative Affairs program director, GSPM’s thesis director, and attended the thesis orientation twice (one via phone).  The expectations about the process set in these sessions and on paper were not met by the school.  The first step seemed clear enough: a short prospectus on what I wanted to research and my approach for doing so.  Initially presented as a formality in the process, this turned into a month-long ordeal with GSPM’s thesis director.  Had this been a constructive or collaborative exercise I would have appreciated the process.  Yet while some of his feedback was useful, most was baffling to me.  Attempts to clarify were unhelpful.  Unsure if it was due to my own unfamiliarity with writing a thesis, I ran the feedback by peers and professors who were equally confounded.  It took four submissions before he accepted the prospectus.  In the end, I had molded the prospectus to fit his notion what the approach to my topic should be, though it no longer reflected the research I wanted to pursue.  Later in the progression of my thesis I reached out to this thesis director on occasion for guidance on the process, yet when I did so, he seemed irritated, dismissive, or simply unresponsive.  Ultimately he removed himself from my thesis committee for reasons that were undeclared.  At one point, he did attempt to gather all those students doing a thesis for a support group night, but too few students were able to attend.  It was never rescheduled.  I ended up forming my own group with two other Legislative Affairs students who had a similar disappointing experiences with the thesis process.

The director of the Legislative Affairs program was more helpful on occasion, though he never felt like a mentor or advisor.  I had to follow up multiple times to receive a response from him.  I never received feedback on my drafts, not even the final.  At the very least I would have appreciated his opinion of the ideas purported in my thesis.

It was never clear who would be on my committee or who would be the advisor with whom I would closely work.  In other thesis programs, there is typically a thesis advisor and a thesis committee.  When I inquired about who would fulfill the duties of those roles, I received a response indicating it was someone other than the person I was asking, no matter whom I asked.  I sought out my “advisor” (again, I don’t what this role was actually considered under the GSPM thesis process), an adjunct professor who specialized in topic I wished to pursue.  My advisor was happy to work with me (though he was also unfamiliar with GSPM’s thesis process).  He was the most supportive part of the process.  He made himself available, let me bounce ideas off him, and provided invaluable feedback on my drafts.  Towards the end of this process, I learned that no one at GSPM had contacted him to discuss the process, despite being told by the Legislative Affairs director that he would.

The thesis “classes” cost a total of six graduate credits.  For that, I received essentially no support from the school.  Given that my advisor was never brought in on the process, I would have been better off writing the thesis independently.  Frustrated that no one but my advisor provided feedback, I had my drafts reviewed by three non-GSPM professors who had experience advising theses.  Finally I had been told that GSPM would help publish it beyond the theses section of ProQuest.  Despite following up, I never received this help.  I am planning to reach out to others to help publish or co-publish.

I do recommend writing a thesis: I value the academic accomplishment, the people I was able to meet, and the subject expertise acquired.  But if you do so through GSPM, do not expect to receive any support from the school.

Advice and Final Thoughts

For those who decide to enroll in this graduate program, here is my advice on how to get the most from your experience:

  1. Sit in on classes to see which professors and topics you like best, then take those courses.
  2. Attend GSPM events, especially the structured one (like speed networking).  They are opportunities to learn about topics you might not otherwise be exposed to.  And of course, good for networking.
  3. Use the career resources available through GSPM.  Their Director of Career Services is determined to help you, but only if you make yourself available to her.
  4. A little-known perk: if you have a 4.0 GPA, you don’t have to take the comprehensive exam as a requirement for graduating.  I wouldn’t suggest killing yourself for this, I hear the comprehensive exam is not exceedingly difficult.
  5. Get involved with GSPM Toastmasters!  Public speaking skills are essential for any DC career, yet not actively taught.  Plus, it’s a great way to meet like-minded peers.

Attending GSPM was worthwhile for me, despite some glaring disappointments.  Hopefully this review will help inform the decisions of those who are seeking for their graduate school experience.  Once again, the one thing to keep in mind: you will get out of this program what you put in.  Finally, feel free to contact me ( if there’s something you’d like to know that isn’t covered in this review.

Comments Off on Review of The Graduate School of Political Management: The Legislative Affairs Master’s Program

Why Sen. Cruz’s Filibuster isn’t a Filibuster

Sep 25 2013

As of this post, Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) has been speaking for 20 hours.  He has held the Senate floor since 2:41pm Tuesday and has not yielded for anything but questions from colleagues.  One Senator holding the floor for hours on end, believing so passionately in an issue as to refuse to allow any business in the Senate to continue, is the stuff of Senate legend.  He has talked through all hours of the day and night, and forced to stay on his feet, or otherwise yield the floor.  This is a true test of stamina and determination, but it is no filibuster.

Cruz is technically debating the “motion to proceed” to the consideration of the continuing resolution bill that will prevent a government shutdown.  When this motion passes (and it will), the Senate will start the process of debating, amending, and finally voting on the bill itself.  But a procedural device known as “cloture” was filed when the motion to proceed was made on Monday.  The enactment of this procedure will be voted on today, at about 1pm, regardless of what other business may be occurring in the Senate.  So even if Cruz continues to holds the floor, he will be interrupted with this cloture vote, which is expected to pass.  And cloture, once enacted, essentially prevents any filibuster on the motion on which it was filed.

Because he cannot prevent this vote by holding the floor, his extended remarks today are simply that and not a filibuster.

Comments Off on Why Sen. Cruz’s Filibuster isn’t a Filibuster

If Senators were D&D Players: Filibuster Reform

Sep 14 2013

Six Dungeons and Dragons players sit around a table.  A seventh, the Dungeon Master (DM), sits at the head.

DM [Chuck]: You fail to block the goblin’s strike.  Its +2 frost blade pierces your Helm of Wonder causing 3 hit points of damage.  You fall to the stone floor, dead.

Paul (in shock): That’s not fair!  What about my Helm of Wonder’s Saving Grace spell?

DM: That’s a one-time use spell and you used it on that Ogre.

Paul: No, I said I thought about using it, I didn’t actually use it.

DM: Thinking about using it is how the Helm’s spell is activated.  You’re dead Paul.

Paul: Wait, a goblin can’t wield magical items!  That means he couldn’t have used the +2 frost blade.

DM (referring to the D&D rule book): Nope, it says here they can wield magical items not greater than short swords.  The frost blade is a short sword.  You’re dead.

Jeff: Come on, Paul; it sucks, you’re dead, but let’s just move on.

Paul: But it also says on that page that goblins fear and are vulnerable to cold.  That means it would never even touch a frost sword!

DM: Well this one was particularly brave.

Bob: Actually, I kinda agree with Paul here, I don’t think that a goblin would touch a frost sword.

John: If I were a goblin, I sure wouldn’t.

Jeff: Clearly there’s some ambiguity in the rules concerning goblins, let’s take a vote on it.  Christopher, Tom, I think you’d agree with me that the goblin could wield the sword and that Paul is dead, right?  And Chuck, as the DM your vote would break the tie, and since you agree with us, that means…

Paul (interrupting): I don’t think you all understand the significance of the origin of goblins’ fear of the cold.  Let me explain: 1500 years ago in the kingdom of Midgaard…. (10 minutes later)… and that’s when the great Goblin King, Traktok…

Jeff: Can we just get on with the vote?  Come on, Chuck, Paul’s just trying to avoid the inevitable.

DM: Actually, in our house rules, it states that we let every player make their argument, without any specified limit, before making any decision, unless at least three fifths of players feel otherwise.  So unless Bob or John feels they’ve heard enough of Goblin history…

Bob: I finished my chemistry homework, so I’m in no hurry.

John: Paul, were there any female goblins?

Jeff: That’s a stupid house rule!  Chuck, this is your house, you make the house rules, just change the rule!

DM: We’re in the middle of a quest, though, so while technically we can change the rules with a majority vote, the house rules also state that you would have to have a two thirds majority to force Paul to shut up about goblins if you’re trying to make a change to the house rules during a quest.

Jeff gets out of his chair.

Jeff: Fine, well I’m done with this quest. (Leaves)

DM: Well you all can’t continue with out a paladin, so we’ll just have to start a new quest next Saturday.

(Next Saturday, all players reconvene)

DM: Ok, today we’re going to do the Dragon’s Beak quest…

Jeff (interrupting): Wait, before we start, I think we need to change the house rules so that we don’t have a repeat of Paul’s goblin rant.  Paul, your died last week, so you’ll need to make a new character sheet and start at level one.  Now, the D&D rule book says we can make our own house rules as need be, and I think we should make it so each player can only argue their points for a maximum of five minutes, then we have to move on no matter what.  Who agrees?

Paul: Wait, I didn’t get a chance to complete my history of goblins last week!  Let me tell you about the Trek of Grogdun…

Jeff: That’s not going to work, Paul; we haven’t started the quest so the house rules don’t apply, you have to vote.

Paul: It doesn’t matter; we’re still playing at Chuck’s house, so the house rules still apply.  Now one day, Gragdun was in the goblin mines…

Jeff: No… it’s a new quest, so we can make new house rules without having to listen to any goblin rants.  The D&D rule book says we can make our own rules as need be and that supersedes any past house rules.  So I say you shut up about goblins, your character is dead, and let’s play using the old house rules but with a new rule to limit arguments to five minutes per person.

Bob: Nah…Paul’s right, most of us have our same character sheets, we’re all still playing in the same world we started two years ago.  The house rules from last time still apply.  So unless you can persuade John otherwise, I think we’d like to continue with Paul’s goblin history lesson.

John: Did Grogdun have a girlfriend?

Jeff: Bah!  Chuck, it’s your house, you’re the DM, what do you think?

DM: Actually, do any of you remember Jeff’s mountain dew rant last year?  About not wanting to have to pay a quarter for a can if you wanted one out of the fridge?  I said last time that the old house rules still applied then, even though we hadn’t started the quest yet, so I’ll have to say the same thing this time.

Jeff: Fine!  Let’s drop it then.  Paul, you’re not dead.  Let’s just get on with the Dragon’s Beak quest.

Paul: Oh, somehow I seem to have forgotten how Grogdun’s story ended.  Let’s move on with the quest then.

Comments Off on If Senators were D&D Players: Filibuster Reform

Why You’re Living in a Swamp. (Or if you don’t live in DC: Why DC is Where it is.)

Aug 17 2013

Thank the usual suspects: Hamilton, Madison, and Jefferson (those dogs…).

You see, following America’s victory in the revolutionary war, the American states collectively carried a considerable amount of debt, much owed to Europeans who sympathized with their struggle against the British (though not sympathetic enough to forgive the debt owed to them).  The northern states like NY, MA, NJ, etc, where most of the war occurred owed a lot (really, a lot) more than the southern states, VA, NC, SC, etc.

Well, along comes Alexander Hamilton who has the brilliant idea to consolidate all of this debt into the first National Debt.  Essentially this would mean that the southern states would assume their share of the debt of northern states.  Hamilton not only wanted to do this because he was a staunch Federalist who wanted to centralize power in the Federal Government, but also because he knew that carrying a national debt was essential to the economic survival of the newly formed country.  Essentially, honoring the debt though issuing government bonds that paid interest allowed the new country to carry credit, and credit was absolutely necessary to conduct any kind of international trade – critical for early America to gets itself on its feet economically.

Madison had an opposing idea.  He wanted to default on (i.e. snub) those who lent money to the colonies.  Jefferson too was wary of federal consolidation and also did not want to burden his state of Virginia with more debt.  But both knew it was indeed necessary to establish credit.

In order to grease the wheels of negotiation, lots of consolidations were made to Virginia regarding the amount of debt it would have to assume, AND included the rather unrelated idea of where to establish the federal district in which the capital of the country would rest (in the South, next to Virginia).  With these consolidations, Jefferson and Madison dropped their opposition to Hamilton’s plan and the agreement was formalized in the Residence Act.

So you’ve living in a swamp.  BUT because of the assumption of debt and establishment of credit, the swamp is still American.

Comments Off on Why You’re Living in a Swamp. (Or if you don’t live in DC: Why DC is Where it is.)

Vote to be a Swing State

May 15 2012

Swing states get all of the attention in presidential elections.  A quick glance at the electoral map confirms that only a handful of states really matter and thus money and attention are lavished upon these undecided zones with the hope of tipping their favor and spilling their electoral votes.  Obama may have just come out in personal support for gay marriage, and over 50% of the country may agree with him, but the big question seems to be “what do the swing states think?”.   So if you want your issues pandered to, if you want money dropped from a helicopter on your town, if you want your state to be in the limelight, then consider voting not for a candidate or issue, but for your state.  Democrat in California?  Vote for Romney.  Republican in Georgia? Cast your ballot for Obama.  In fact, all down the ticket, confer with the polls and vote against them no matter the candidate or issue.  And with a little organization, and a little luck, in the next election cycle your state may be the next Florida.

Comments Off on Vote to be a Swing State

Game: Split the Pie

Apr 17 2012

When a agreement between two parties bares fruit, there can be considerable contention on how to split the pie that is made from that fruit.  Some will try to base a proposed split on what is fair, others what is deserved.  And others still: what they can get away with.  Whether it’s a trade agreement, a government program, or even just purchasing a car, it so often seems that an agreement where all parties would benefit can break down from the inability to jointly decide how the dividends from the agreement should be divvied up.  Are there methods that can be employed to ensure that these opportunities are not foregone because of disagreements over how to share the pie?

The Game of Split the Pie

Let’s explore a simple Game Theory exercise that might help in considering possible tactics.  The game works like this:

There exists a $100 pot of money.  Two players secretly write down what amount of the $100 pot they wish to have in whole dollars.  The two amounts are then revealed and each player receives the amount they wrote plus 50% of the remainder of the pot.  However, if the sum of both amounts is greater than the $100 pot, both players receive nothing.

For example, if each player writes $50, then each player would receive $50 from the pot.  Similarly, if both players write $0, they both receive $50 since they would each be paid 50% of the remaining $100 in the pot.  However, if one player writes $80 and the other writes $40, the sum of the two amounts would be $120, and since there is not enough money in the $100 pot to cover both requests, they both receive $0.

How to Split the Pie

Splitting the pie is not the same as a zero sum game in which one player’s gain is the other player’s loss.  Although this kind of game can often be mistaken for zero sum, both players can receive a payment that makes them better off than before playing, even if it’s only a very small payment.  Yet this is also where the difficulty lies.  A player who assumes this idea would perhaps write $1 with the idea that doing so will result in the best chance of receiving anything from the pot.  Should they encounter another player with a similar tactic, they will both split the pot evenly and walk away with $50 each.  In fact, the pot is split evenly when both players write the same amount between $0 and $50.

But what if you know you will encounter a player who will ask for a dollar?  The temptation is to ask for $99.  And why shouldn’t you?  Both players will be better off than before, you will just happen to be relatively much better off than the other player.

The Problem

There is no real equilibrium to this game and therein lies the problem.  There is no right strategy.  While this is a simplified game in that there is only one round and no open negotiation, this problem arises, even in the form of this simple game, more often than we might think.  Consider a scenario where two parties are negotiating the price of a car.  The potential buyer may make an offer so low that the seller does not even consider further negotiation, even if the buyer might be willing to make a much higher offer, so the first round becomes the only round.  A trade that would benefit both parties cannot be completed because at least one party was relatively too greedy in their ask.

However, within the confines of the one round, secret ballot rules, each player is on their own.  My guess is that if played in an experimental setting, most players would choose $50.  Most would consider it fair and if the other player asks for more then it would “serve them right” for causing the breakdown of the deal and causing both players to receive a $0 payout.

What Can be Done?

Add a new rule to the game: no player may ask for more than $50.  In real life, this might take the form of a government regulator.  Of course, if you’re playing against people only asking for a dollar, you would lobby hard against this kind of regulation.

Or perhaps add a rule that arbitrates so that a deal can always be made.  This might be in the form of a penalty to the player whose ask amount is greater amount that would break the deal that would be paid to the other player.  Of course, if the goal is simply to ensure that deals are always made so that both players are always better off, then this arbiter could even be random in it’s “fairness”.

Concluding agreements that result in a pie, no matter how that pie is split, benefit everyone involved.  So what other tactics might be employed to ensure that these deals are successfully reached more often?




Comments Off on Game: Split the Pie

Election Year: Expect the Unexpected… Legislation

Feb 21 2012

Perhaps there’s a certain sector of the economy you’re unhappy with.  Maybe it’s energy with big oil or green tech, or agriculture with industrial farming or hemp production.  Say you want to tip the scales of the sector to favor a particular type of production.  Why not introduce some legislative uncertainty?  While perhaps not intentional, this is something Congress does tend to accomplish.  Wrangling in Congress makes certain businesses more expensive to operate.  Coal fired electric plants may be required to install expensive smokestack scrubbers, or they may not.  Either way, the operators will need to hedge against the possible expense which costs them money.  This makes investment in coal fired plants less attractive, which makes financing more expensive, and so on.  Note that there’s an actual expense to the operators without the benefit of the scrubbers.

So long as your district isn’t affected (you wouldn’t want to lose your seat, would you?) and you want to inhibit coal, perhaps consider throwing around some chatter about installing scrubbers.  Of course, the executive and judiciary both have similar power.  Is this considered an obstructionist tactic or a way to have an impact in what could otherwise be an ineffectual year?


Comments Off on Election Year: Expect the Unexpected… Legislation

What Can be Done in Congress’s Off Year?

Jan 25 2012

There’s a lot of talk about nothing getting done in Congress this year.  Why?  Because not only do opposing parties continue to control the two houses of Congress, but in case you haven’t heard, is 2012 an election year.

Every even-numbered year is campaign season for each and every Member of the House and for one-third of the Senate.  Campaigning and the persistent nag to fundraise, either for yourself or for fellow Members, draws the attention away from the Hill.  For some, re-districting has changed the nature of campaign season.  Previously competitive seats may have become safer, while some non-competitive seats will now face more of a challenge.  In any case, it seems that concern is reserved for the campaign trail.  On the Hill, controversial issues will be dodged and wins for the opposing party will be avoided at all costs.  Compromises will like be few, if any.

It seems that passing laws, the most well-known power of Congress, is likely off the table for most.  So as a Member of Congress, what can you do this year?

Comments Off on What Can be Done in Congress’s Off Year?

The Hidden Cost of Saving Pennies

Nov 25 2011

Do you remember the last time you were handed pennies as [part] of a handful of coins when breaking a bill?  Do you remember what you did with them?  They may have ended up at the bottom of your purse, or in your pants pocket, or perhaps stuffed in the seat cushions of your car.  Or like many pennies, they find their way to a large coin jar collecting more dust than interest.

No one would blame you.  Pennies are the most worthless coin ever minted in the US.  Over the years, the persistent gnawing of inflation has erodes the value of currency.  They are not even worth the metal they are made of.  In fact, since it costs about two cents for a penny to be made, the seignorage (the “profit” made from selling currency at face value) is a negative one cent for each penny.  In other words, while the US Mint usually makes money on selling currency, it lost $28 million to produce four trillion pennies in 2010.   So why does the US Mint keep making more of them?

One reason is that people don’t use them.  That is, once a penny is received as change, it tends to disappear from the money supply (and perhaps reappear rattling around a clothes dryer or vacuum cleaner).  With so many pennies sitting unused in jars, boxes, or drawers, the US Mint must produce more so that stores can continue giving change denominated to the nearest 100th of a dollar.

So do your duty and either use the pennies you have, use a credit card, or tell your cashier to keep the change.

Update: For fiscal year 2012, the government spent nearly half a billion dollars to produce pennies and nickles (which cost about ten cents to mint and distribute).  Please, think of the future of this country and refuse change.

Comments Off on The Hidden Cost of Saving Pennies

What’s the Matter with the Supercommittee?

Nov 21 2011

That’s Right, I’m Calling You a Chicken.

With only three days left before the November 23rd midnight deadline, it looks increasingly likely that the Supercomittee will fail to put forth a proposal for the whole of Congress to vote on.  Some eyes are looking for an end-game miracle “Hail Mary” (or should that “Hail Murray”?), but most of the dialog seems to have degenerated into posturing for the expected game-day loss.  (Forgive the football metaphor, it’s Sunday.)

With real skin in the game for both Democrats and Republicans in the form of automatic cuts to beloved medicare and defense spending (respectively), why are the chances so slim for the Supercommitee to produce a deal?

The initial idea was that Congress as a whole would not bring themselves to do the dirty work of targeted spending cuts and revenue increases.  No Member wanted to risk being the subject of a campaign commercial accusing him of being the reason that Grandma can’t afford her medicine or why troops aren’t getting the equipment they need.  So the theory went that a smaller, bi-partisan committee, with a gun to their head, would be able to share the “blame” and make the hard choices that Congress as a whole could not.  The deal would then get an up or down vote in each chamber of Congress with no amendments and no filibuster (that’s the “super” part, by the way).  It seems like this approach would have a reasonable chance of producing a result, right?  So what happened?

Chicken.  That’s right, Chicken happened.  Recall that the supercommittee is a direct result of the debt ceiling crisis where both parties were playing a game of Chicken.  Chicken, as seen in “Rebel Without a Cause”, is a game where two players drive their cars at high speeds towards the edge of a cliff.  The first player to stop or bail out of the car is “chicken” and the other player wins the game and the respect of all of his teenage friends.  Needless to say, going over the cliff is the ultimate loss.  So Congress played Chicken with the debt ceiling in an effort to gain the respect of their metaphorical teenage friends and as a result, they created another game of Chicken in the form of the Supercommittee.

So how do you win a game of Chicken?  Easy: you have to convince the other player that you’re going to drive off the cliff no matter what.  And by what means to you accomplish this ruse?  Simple: act as crazy as possible.

During the debt ceiling crisis, the Republicans had everyone convinced, whether a ruse or not, that they would put the petal to the metal until they hit the bottom of the canyon.  Credit the tea party freshman with adding significantly to their credibility.  But before either player reached the cliff edge, they both agreed that they could save face by postponing the game to a later date with a few concessions handed out to the GOP (such as the floor debate and vote on the Balanced Budget Amendment).  This postponment agreement became the Supercommittee.

And so the game was recreated, except instead of US default, automatic spending cuts were substituted as the cliff.  At first the rhetoric did not indicate that Chicken was being played,  in that no Member of the committee was talking about the process.  But once each party released their initial plans, it was clear what was to become of the effort: Chicken.  This time, though, the Democrats would be the crazy ones: an initial plan to cut $5 trillion instead of the required $1.2 trillion, Obama and Democratic Members promising to hold Congress to the automatic cuts as agreed to, and the Democrats even leading on that the cuts to their beloved programs wouldn’t even be that bad (i.e. “My car has airbags”).  All this while Republicans are already talking about stopping the triggered cuts and submitting to possible revenue raisers (i.e. “I have flammable materials in my trunk”) .

The problem with Chicken is that there is no collaborative solution.  The equilibrium of the game is in fact a mixed strategy where you sometimes drive off the cliff, and sometimes bail.  But of course, with the stakes so high, and both players sharing the same car, you only get to drive off the cliff once.

So how do you really win a game of Chicken?  Don’t play, change the game.


Comments Off on What’s the Matter with the Supercommittee?

Older »