July 27, 2011

Rogue Elephants

I've already linked to this from google+ and twitter, but can't stop thinking about it, so I'm going to write about it here. There's an op-ed piece in today's @nytimes by David Barash entitled Washington's Rogue Elephants. In it he writes of the current debt ceiling stand-off between the President and the Republicans. Please click the link and read it for yourself, but here's what interests me, and following that, my question about it:

Barash writes about the metaphor we all seem to be using these days, that it is a classic game of chicken which will end with one side swerving out of the way. The swerver loses, but the crash is averted. But, he wonders, what if the current stand-off is not being played under traditional assumptions? His answer?

"Here’s where elephants come into play. To achieve their mating goals, male elephants will sometimes play games of chicken, with one individual essentially giving the impression that he is crazy and has become an irrational player in a game premised on shared rationality and predictability."

He adds that this tactic tends to work because male elephants "can become temporarily "crazy." When in musk bull elephants "ooze a weird, foul-smelling, greenish glop from glands near their eyes," and behave "with violent abandon, taking risks and defying the basic rules of pachyderm propriety (and also giving rise to the term 'rogue elephant')."

So, what does one do when confronted by a rogue elephant? Brasher suggests avoiding it or shooting it. Avoiding it means no more negotiating, and instead refusing to play the game.

Okay...in theory I get this, but how would President Obama do this in reality?



Harold Gold said...

From the New Yorker:

As the economist Thomas Schelling showed many years ago, “It does not always help to be, or to be believed to be, fully rational, coolheaded, and in control of oneself” when it comes to brinksmanship. It doesn’t, in short, help to be President Obama. That may be why all the deals that have been taken seriously this season rely much more heavily on spending cuts than on tax increases: the deals represent Republican priorities, because the Republicans seem to be more willing than the Democrats to let the country default. It’s not pure craziness that’s rewarded—when some congressional Tea Partiers said that they wouldn’t vote to raise the ceiling under any circumstances, they became irrelevant to the conversation, since no compromise would make them happy. But recklessness does equal power: that’s why Eric Cantor, the House Majority Leader, and John Boehner, the Speaker of the House, have implied that they’re willing to go over the cliff (in part by suggesting that their fellow party members will force them to) but also that they can be persuaded to do the right thing.

Laurie Gold said...

It's that whole WWII appeasement thing all over again, it seems to me. But we're hardly likely to declare war upon ourselves.