Saturday, August 6, 2011

Why Politicians Behave the Way They Do

For quite a while, we Americans have had an exceptionally low opinion of politicians in general, and that low opinion has been rapidly sinking in the last few months.

As of December of last year, Gallup reported that a new low had been recorded in the number of Americans approving of the way Congress is handling its job - 13%.  The President's approval rating as of the end of July was 42%, near his low for his tenure in office.

When I speak with people, they echo these sentiments, and when I ask them why they feel that way, they often respond with statements like these:

"Oh, they're all just politicians, just interested in getting re-elected; they care about that more than what's best for the country.  I just wish they could compromise and work better together, on behalf of all of us."

And it seems that those feelings have a real basis in fact, as the recent debt ceiling crisis amply demonstrated.

Most fair observers would remark that the one clear line drawn in the sand by the President was that there be no more battles over the debt, requiring him to go to Congress for authority to raise the debt limit, until after the 2012 elections.  While this was justified as a measure intended to calm the markets, the political benefits to the President (and his party) are painfully obvious.

At the same time, the Republicans were willing to risk default, so long as any solution to the crisis did not involve increases in taxes, notwithstanding the recommendations of the President's bi-partisan fiscal commission that tax increases (and a re-structuring of the tax code) should be part of a balanced solution, and that any realistic solution to the deficit will probably have to involve some additional revenues.

And all of this was in the framework of the pledge by the Republican leader in the Senate that “the single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term President.”

Confrontational, combative, highly competitive - all adjectives that accurately describe most politicians' current behavior.

So, why do politicians behave this way and what, if anything, can be done about it?

The explanation of Why, may be fairly straightforward, and it flows from a simple observation:  

Human beings operate and interact within a system (made up of the general culture, specific legal rules and other inputs) and they will act in ways which are incentivized by that system.  Change the system and you will (probably) change the behavior.  Leave the system unchanged, and you'll probably get the same behavior.

Or, to put it in a slightly different way, when a system rewards certain types of behavior, people will act in accordance with those rewards.  Politicians are probably no less intelligent, rational or moral than most of us; they simply respond to the constraints of the system in which they operate.

So, here's the news item: 

 Politics is a highly competitive system, in which politicians compete for a limited number of rewards (seats in Congress, the Presidency, etc.)  He who can out-compete his or her rival is rewarded (high office, salary, power, ego gratification, etc.); she who cannot is punished (back to the private sector, albeit perhaps with a high-paying lobbyist or law firm, loss of power and prestige, etc.)

[In fact, some of this is inherent in our political system, as designed by the Founding Fathers.  While they certainly did not mandate the rise of political parties, they did establish a system of checks and balances, and two houses of Congress, intentionally setting up a scheme in which an absence of consensus would frustrate initiatives and potential "power grabs."]

So, politicians rationally respond to these incentives, understanding that the other party is not a team member, but a rival (think: Yankees vs. Red Sox), and that the foremost objective is not to cooperate, but to battle and (hopefully) triumph over your rival.

You can see this in the recent debt crisis battle, as analyzed by game theory, which sees politics as a zero-sum game (in the technical sense) between two players, battling for a limited resource: political power.

First, a graphic (from, with a typical 2 x 2 matrix from game theory.  One player is the White House (with its Congressional allies) and the other is the Republicans in Congress:

Each player has two basic options: Hold Out (intransigence) or Compromise, and the outcome depends not only on what that player does but what the other does also.  Neither party can control the actions of the other, so he must think about what the other player might do, as well as his own options.

In each case, if one player holds out, he may achieve political victory, but can also cause financial armageddon (if the other player holds out), which, aside from hurting the country, will (and more relevantly for these purposes) probably result in a huge political loss for both players, and that potential negative result is far scarier than the potential positive result (political victory) is rewarding.  

After all, the player is, by definition, already in office - victory merely marginally enhances his position.  Financial armageddon risks loss of office and all the psychic and other rewards that go with it.

On the other hand, if the player compromises, and a deal is reached that no one likes, that player has avoided the severe losses associated with financial armageddon and, most importantly, remains in office.

So, a rational player (and I do believe that nearly all politicians are very, very rational, at least when it comes to strategizing their own re-election) will choose the least risky course of action.  Game theory then predicts the outcome in this case: compromise that no one likes.  And that's exactly what happened.

Then, if the system is inherently competitive, non-cooperative and perceived by the players as a zero-sum game, is there anything we can do to incentivize cooperative behavior, to the benefit of the country?


Some of the fixes are technical and in the nature of corrections to the political process, such as having congressional districts not be drawn (gerrymandered) by the politicians themselves, hopefully resulting in fewer "safe seats" where politicians know they will not face a serious challenge from the other party in the general election and can (and should, under game theory) pander to their own most-extreme base so as to triumph in primary elections.

More generally,we should acknowledge that while we may or may not get the politicians we deserve, we definitely get the politicians we elect and re-elect.  That's one of the moral downsides of a democracy - ultimately we have responsibility for who we put in office, a burden not shared by the citizens of, say, Cuba, Libya or North Korea.

So, part of the solution may be the same strategy used by a Mother who has two children that can't play well together - both go to their rooms without dinner, loose TV privileges, etc.

She simply creates a system (changes the rules of the "game") so that unacceptable behavior is punished and good behavior is rewarded.  And, in most cases, the children, now exposed to a game in which inappropriate behavior leads to loss for both of them, eventually "get it."

When Americans stop reflexively returning to office incumbents who refuse to work together (from 1982 through 2006, over 95% of all House members seeking re-election were successful - people don't like Congress but keep voting for their Congressman/woman), those politicians may get the message.


  1. Pieced together, I think there’s an obvious answer to the conundrum you cite. Specifically, you mention that:

    “As of December of last year, Gallup reported that a new low had been recorded in the number of Americans approving of the way Congress is handling its job - 13%”

    …and yet:

    “from 1982 through 2006, over 95% of all House members seeking re-election were successful”

    So we’re 87% dissatisfied with the other 434 Congressmen/Congresswomen, but (95% of the time) we’re cool with our own.


    Welcome to the beauty and the curse of federalism. Hate the death penalty, but live in Gary, Indiana? Move to New York. Or, more realistically, 20 miles over the state line into Chicago. Individual communities choose the system that they want all the time. As it should be.

    Many argue that our federalist system is one of the core traits that have made our nation strong and resilient. Let’s get for the serious – America is about as diverse a (1st world) country as the planet has. The fact that 300+ million people still even ARE one country is pretty amazing.

    The problem is that small community preferences (read: Congressional districts) are becoming nationwide policy. Some would argue that the will of 55% in a democracy should be instituted among 100% of the people.

    But I wouldn’t. What I would say is that such a result points to a pretty strong argument for reducing the role of federal law in the lives of individual communities. No?

  2. As usual, Dr. Brown makes an excellent point.

    In a Federal system, one of the threshold questions that should be asked is "Even assuming the proposal makes sense from a substantive standpoint, why should it be a Federal matter, rather than being implemented on a state-by-state level?"

    State-by-state implementation allows each jurisdiction to decide if the proposal makes sense, and if those residents want to bear any associated costs or regulatory burdens, as well as allowing citizens who feel strongly opposed to move to another state more in line with their political views.

    In addition, state-by-state adoption allows us to see which variant of a particular policy actually work as advertised, rather than committing to a single national proposal which may or may not actually work.

    So, what are the reasons why some programs (Obamacare, for example) get adopted on a national basis.

    1. Sometimes, the proponents are simply so convinced of the wisdom of their proposal that they feel morally compelled to advocate its universal adoption.

    Of course, this is just one subset of the philosophy "We know what's best for you; just sit back and follow our directions."

    2. Some issues do, in fact, require a consistent approach across jurisdictional boundaries.

    For example, assume power plants in Ohio are causing downwind pollution in Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania residents have no legal, or politically practical, means of affecting Ohio's operation of those plants, and Ohio residents are understandably reluctant to take on the costs of mitigating pollution, with no direct benefit to them.

    In that situation, a Federal solution may make sense, balancing the interests of both states. This can also make sense when the public will benefit from one consistent set of regulations across the country, such as in regulations affecting inter-sate busineses.

    3. As a matter of practical politics, it simply may be easier to convince 218 House members, 51 Senators and the President to pass your legislation, than doing the grunt work of going to 50 state legislatures and getting all of them to pass your bill.

    But none of this changes the fact that, unless a very good reason exists for doing otherwise, most laws should be adopted on a local level, so that citizens will have greater opportunity for input and adjustment to local needs and preferences, as well as for some experimentation among competing solutons.

    Well done, Dr. Brown!