WHY THE AMATEUR GAME THEORIST VOTER WILL GET BURNED
In some of the endorsements of Kerry from market-friendly and conservative sources that have come out lately, the prospect of gridlock is part of the argument for electing Kerry. The Economist writes
If the test is a domestic one, especially an economic crisis, Mr Kerry looks
acceptable, however. His record and instincts are as a fiscal conservative,
suggesting that he would rightly see future federal budget deficits as a threat.
His circle of advisers includes the admirable Robert Rubin, formerly Mr
Clinton's treasury secretary. His only big spending plan, on health care, would
probably be killed by a Republican Congress.
Andrew Sullivan has mentioned the issue of gridlock before, and he is presumably thinking the same thing in his endorsement
, since he states that
Domestically, Kerry is clearly Bush's fiscal superior. At least he acknowledges
the existence of a fiscal problem, which this president cannot.
even though Kerry proposes more new spending than Bush, even net of his proposed tax hikes. The claim is probably based on the belief he blogged
earlier this year that
If you take seriously the fact that this country is headed toward fiscal
catastrophe in the next decade, then restraining spending and raising some taxes
in the next four years is almost as essential as tackling the entitlement
crunch. Neither Bush nor Kerry wants to help. They're both cowards (although
Kerry seems to have a better grip on fiscal reality than Bush does). So gridlock
is the best option. The combination of Bill Clinton and a Republican Congress
was great for the country's fiscal standing. Independents and anyone under 40
concerned with the deficit don't need a Perot. They just need to vote for Kerry
and hope the GOP retains control of at least one half of Congress.
Doug Bandow of the Cato Institute lays out the case for gridlock
with stats to back it up:
Consider the record. William Niskanen, former acting chairman of the
Council of Economic Advisors, has put together a fascinating analysis of
government spending since 1953. Real federal outlays grew fastest, 4.8%
annually, in the Kennedy-Johnson years, with Congress under Democratic control.
The second-fastest rise, 4.4%, occurred with George W. Bush during Republican
rule. The third-biggest spending explosion, 3.7%, was during the Carter
administration, a time of Democratic control. In contrast, the greatest fiscal
stringency, 0.4%, occurred during the Eisenhower years. The second-best period
of fiscal restraint, 0.9%, was in the Clinton era. Next came the Nixon-Ford
years, at 2.5%, and Ronald Reagan's presidency, at 3.3%. All were years of
shared partisan control.
Bush officials argue that it is unfair to count military spending, but
Dwight Eisenhower, Lyndon Johnson, and Ronald Reagan also faced international
challenges that impeded their domestic plans. Moreover, if you do strip out
military spending and consider only the domestic record, GOP chief executives
emerge in an even worse light. In terms of real domestic discretionary outlays,
which are most easily controlled, the biggest spender in the past 40 years is
George W. Bush, with expenditure racing ahead 8.2% annually, according to
Stephen Moore of the Club for Growth. No. 2 on the list is Gerald Ford, at 8%.
No. 3 is Richard Nixon. At least the latter two, in contrast to Bush, faced
Given the generally woeful record of Republican Presidents, the best
combination may be a Democratic chief executive and Republican legislature. It
may also be the only combination that's feasible, since in 2004 at least, it
will be difficult to overturn Republican congressional control: Redistricting
has encouraged electoral stasis in the House, while far more Democrats face
reelection in the Senate. Thus, the only way we can realistically keep Congress
and the President in separate political hands is to vote for John Kerry in
This voting strategy is an application of game theory. Gridlock voters anticipate that politicians play a game with the following parameters:
1) Each politician wants to help members of his own party, to make them look good and help them to serve the interests of their constituency and get re-elected.
2) Each politician wants to hinder members of the other party, to make them look bad and prevent them from serving the interests of their constituency and getting re-elected.
3) All politicians like to spend.
In that case, a Democratic president, for example, would have an incentive to veto bills proposed by a Republican Congress. A Republican Congress would have an incentive to refuse to pass bills sponsored by a Democratic president. Politicians might end up playing a game of chicken, as Clinton and the Gingrich Congress did in 1996; who can refuse to budge longer? A divided government, therefore, would accomplish little, a frustrating situation for politicians, but salutary for voters.
The problem with this is that once politicians recognize that voters like gridlock, that changes the parameters of the game.
Let's add a new parameter:
4) Voters like politicians to be gridlocked so as to slow the growth of government.
5) Assume the president typically gets most of the blame for a deficit, whereas members of Congress get credit for local pork.
Once politicians realize this, their incentives change.
Suppose Kerry is elected with the help of a significant number of conservative voters who expect a divided government to spend less than a unified one.
It is not in the interests of the Republican Congress to see voters get what they want, gridlock, which will only encourage them to vote for Democratic presidents in the future. The Republicans in Congress will, instead, have an interest in spending as much money as possible, in order to discredit Kerry.
True, Kerry has an incentive to veto their bills. But Kerry has a domestic spending agenda too. So the Republicans could give Kerry some
of what he wants in return for Kerry signing off on their pork projects. Republicans will eviscerate the bills and make them as pork-laden as they can without triggering Kerry's veto.
Republicans hope that Kerry will be blamed both for the deficit and the ineffectiveness of the bills. For them, it's a win-win situation. They can spend a lot and
be helping the party by governing badly, since if the voters decide gridlock isn't working, they're more likely to elect a Republican president.
Kerry could just veto everything, which is what his gridlock voters wanted. But most of his constituency prefer that he pursue his domestic agenda, and he may feel that he has campaign promises to fulfill. The deeper problem with voting for gridlock is that politicians won't know what their mandates are. If Kerry is elected on the basis of anticipated gridlock, should he conclude the people elected me, so they must want my health plan to pass?
Or should he conclude, since the people also elected a Republican House of Representatives which doesn't want to pass my health care plan, that's probably not be part of my mandate?
Each side calculates that voters' desire for gridlock will keep them in power. At the same time, they hope that voters will get disillusioned with divided government, and that their party can claim all the branches of government then.
The basic problem is that when voters let the gridlock phenomenon affect their vote, this changes the parameters of the game so that gridlock no longer works.
Fortunately, there's a flip side to this. If Republicans realize that voters like gridlock, and if Bush wins but realizes he lost a number of conservative voters to Kerry on gridlock grounds, it's in his interest to create a little gridlock, sparring with Congress to restrain spending, so that voters won't elect a Democrat to do that instead.
In conclusion, I would not counsel people, or high-flying bloggers, or London-based publications, to engage in amateur game theory when deciding how to vote. Just stick with straightforward common sense. If you want small government, don't vote for the liberal.