Bell Curve The Law Talking Guy Raised by Republicans U.S. West
Well, he's kind of had it in for me ever since I accidentally ran over his dog. Actually, replace "accidentally" with "repeatedly," and replace "dog" with "son."

Saturday, April 23, 2005

Why I Think the Senate Republicans Will Back Down

Hi Gang,

I've come to the conclusion that despite any threats by V.P. Cheney or President Bush or even from the Senate leadership, the Republicans in the Senate will NOT implement the so called "nuclear option." (no Lisa, it's pronounced 'nucular')

I'm certain of this because this situation resembles a repeated prisoners dilemma - a game theoretical model that has been studied intensively by economists, political scientists and mathematicians for decades.

The set up is as follows: Two players are in a game situation with each other. Each player must chose between cooperating and defecting (without knowing what the other player is choosing). Since there are two players with two choices each, there are four possible outcomes: both cooperate, player 1 cooperates but player 2 defects, player 1 defects but player 2 cooperates, and both defect.

Player 1 prefers the outcomes in the following order from favorite to worst:
1) player 1 defects but player 2 cooperates
2) both cooperate
3) both defect
4) player 1 cooperates but player 2 defects

Player 2 prefers the outcomes in the following order from favorite to worst:
1) player 1 cooperates but player 2 defects
2) both cooperate
3) both defect
4) player 1 defects but player 2 cooperates

If these two players are interacting only once, they have a dominant strategy to defect on each other. This is because I defect you cooperate is better than both of us cooperating. Also if you defect on me I prefer to also defect. This logic works when the two players interact only once or if they are interacting repeatedly but with a known number of repetitions (the last repetition is just like a single shot interaction, so defect/defect rules. Since the last round is defect/defect, the second to last round is essentially the last round for cooperation, which means they both defect then too...and it cascades back to the first round).

If these two players are interacting repeatedly and indefinitely, they can cooperate with each other so long as they value the benefits of future cooperation more than they value the benefits of current defection. This cooperation will also only continue if the two players adopt one of the following strategies:

Grim Trigger: "I will cooperate with you in the first round and every round thereafter so long as you cooperate with me. But if you defect against me, I will defect against you in the following round and forever thereafter."

Tit-for-tat: "I will cooperate with you in the first round and every round thereafter so long as you cooperate with me. But if you defect against me, I will defect against you in the following round but then return to cooperating the round after that if you cooperated when I defected."

When people's value of the future diminishes to, these strategies will no longer support cooperation (because the threats of future defection ring hollow). So there are basically three ways for cooperation to fail. First, the two players recognized that there interaction is about to end (finite repetition). Second, the incentives for basic game change such that they aren't playing a prisoner's dilemma anymore (rules change). Third, one or both of the players mistakenly believe they have been defected against when in fact cooperation occurred (bad information).

If you are interested in more about the prisoner's dilemma check out this website or this one.

So how does this relate to Congress?

The Democrats and Republicans can keep the filibuster for judicial appointments or end it. Assume that over time, power alternates between the two so if the Republican's remove the filibuster now, the Democrats will have the chance to reinstate it or keep it removed when they return to power some time in the future. They have the following preferences.

1) Republicans do not allow filibusters, Democrats do allow filibusters
2) Both Republicans and Democrats allow filibusters
3) Neither Republicans nor Democrats allow filibusters
4) Republicans allow filibusters, Democrats do not allow filibusters

1) Republicans allow filibusters, Democrats do not allow filibusters
2) Both Republicans and Democrats allow filibusters
3) Neither Republicans nor Democrats allow filibusters
4) Republicans do not allow filibusters, Democrats do allow filibusters

Since the Republican party and the Democratic party are both extremely stable over time, both parties' leaders know that interaction will continue for the foreseeable future but do not know exactly how or when it will end. The leaders of each party in the Senate expect to be in the Senate for long terms (6-12 years at least and longer for many of them). Democrats are responding to the threats to end the filibuster with counter threats to react strongly and without reservation (i.e. the Democrats are playing "Grim Trigger").

So what is driving this? Why do the Republicans even bring it up?

Explanation 1: Its mainly the White House. The Bush administration is only going to be around for another 3 and a half years and so have no value for the future...they want to get what they can when they can. But the Senate Republicans have a longer time horizon and simply following Bush's lead hoping the Democrats give in.

Explanation 2: Term limits have shortened the time horizon for Senate leaders. Because they only serve a term or two, Senators no longer think of what is going to happen in the Senate 10-15 years in the future.

Explanation 3: The Republicans regard the Democrat's use of the filibuster as a defection from the norm and are - in their view - only threatening their own Grim Trigger.

The news I've heard makes me think that Explanation 1 is the most accurate. It was Bush who originally nominated these people. It was Bush who re-nominated the same people knowing they would be filibustered. Right from the start, Republican Senators have said that ending the filibuster for judicial nominations would be a mistake.

What do you guys think?


Dr. Strangelove said...

Sorry, RxR, but despite your excellent analysis, I disagree. The Grim Trigger threat is only believable if it is a credible threat. Furthermore, the "repeated" aspect prisoners' dilemma analysis applies only if both sides expect to play the game again.

The Republican leadership are betting the Democrats won't follow through on their obstructionist threat for more than a few months. And Republicans are by nature short-sighted and selfish: Frist wants to get elected President in 2008, so he does not expect to play the game again.

Anonymous said...

I didn't mean to suggest that the near term obstructionist tactics were the "Grim Trigger." (but they are an indication of the credibility of future intent to reinstate the filibuster or leave it removed). Rather I'm thinking of the time in the future when the Democrats have control of the Senate and push through Democratically prefered judges that would not be approved if the filibuster were still in place. If the filibuster is removed, do you really think the Democrats would reinstate it once they retook the majority?! I don't think you think that. I think you misunderstood how far out into the future I'm thinking. I'm thinking really long term here (like a decade).

Of course one can find individual Senators who won't be around then. Frist is probably a good example. Your point here would be a variation on "Explanation 2" that I outlined above (that term limits are making Senators short sighted). But for the filibuster to survive the Democrats need either Frist himself to back down or for a hand full of farsighted Republicans to back down. I think that if Frist sees that a half a dozen or so Republicans will vote against removing the filibuster, he'll back down rather than lose a public fight.

I still think this is largely driven by Bush. And I doubt Frist was happy when Bush re-nominated his divisive wish list of judges.

I stand by my prediction. 

// posted by Raised By Republicans

Dr. Strangelove said...

"In the long run we are all dead."
-John Maynard Keynes

Sorry, I misread your "Grim Trigger." And I should have said I was supporting a variant of your Explanation #2.

Evangelical Republicans would rather take their judges now and screw the future. They are driving Republican politics now--and even non-evangelical Republicans are naturally shortsighted. I'll bet Frist is happy to get the chance to take the spotlight and fight for the evangelicals. I suspect you agree.

My question is, why would a Republican choose to anger the White House, the GOP leadership, and the evangelicals, when they have nothing to gain, except maybe preventing Democratic judges many years from now? It would take a farsighted person to support the politics of consensus rather than he politics of polarization. I think there are indeed Republican Senators (like Chaffee and McCain) who would do so.

I just don't think there are 6 of them.

Anonymous said...

My thinking is that in the current situation, a (first term?) Republican Senator from the Midwest or Southwest has more to gain from cooperating with the Democrats today and in the future than they have to lose by ticking off a lame duck President with a largely Southern constituency.

Remember, the Democrats don't need a 100% change of heart from the GOP. They just need to have 6 Republicans decide its better to cooperate than be nasty.

From my perspective one of the most important insights of this type of analysis is that recognition of the usefulness of cooperation is not dependent on ideology. It is possible for a religious conservative to decide that cooperation (which would result in centrist judges all the time) is better than getting a mix of radical right and radical left judges.

Of course if all the Senators believed that they would not be around in 10 years (either because of term limits or the Rapture), then they would have no incentive to cooperate at all.

But also, underlying both our arguments is the assumption that Senators are interested in policy for its own sake. If that is the case, they may have preferences for what the policy landscape looks like long after they no longer have a personal stake. 

// posted by Raised By Republicans

Dr. Strangelove said...

RxR: you wrote, "underlying both our arguments is the assumption that Senators are interested in policy for its own sake." But not really. You need 6 of them to care about the underlying policy for Bush's judicial hijacking to fail. All I need is for Frist and the rest of his myopic Republican congressional clique to wish, however cynically, make a show of supporting evangelicals right now in order for them to eliminate the traditional filibuster forever.

A stupid move on their part? Yes. But putting your money on the side of stupidity is usually a safe bet. There's this great Dilbert cartoon where Dogbert is holding a dowsing rod and he says to Dilbert that he has just invented a device to detect human stupidity. He says it has a simple interface: "All you have to do it point it at someone," he explains proudly. Dilbert prompts him, "Then what does it do?" To which Dogbert replies, "Why would it have to do anything else?"

Anonymous said...

Great cartoon!!

Frist is only one guy. While he is the leader of the Senate GOP, he can't change the rules by decree. He must put it to a floor vote and it must then pass by a simple majority. Since the GOP has 55 seats plus the VP, if 6 GOP Senators (Chafee, Hagel, McCain, Coleman?, Collins?, Lugar?, Snow?, Specter?, Sunnunu?, others?) see the long term pointlessness of such a move, the fillibuster will stay in place. And I just listed the more famously open-minded or moderate Senators who don't owe their positions to the theocrats or have already pissed them off. Voinovich (R-OH) could be a sleeper. So might Grassley (R-IA).  

// posted by Raised By Republicans

Anonymous said...

1. Six senators: McCain, Specter, Collins, Snowe, Chafee, Warner (all believed to be opposed based on public statements). Possibly others.

2. As usual with Game Theory, I have the unsatisfying feeling that once one assigns preferences, the rest is rather obvious, and that one can often cleverly assign preferences to achieve whatever outcome one would prefer, in part because the manner of assigning preferences is left up to the modeler.

That being said, I think the reality is that the Dems cannot afford to lose, and know it. And the Republicans know it too. Thus, the threat to shut down the Senate is credible. Similarly, the Dem threat (to stop all legislation) will please their base, and hurt the independent/center ONLY if it is perceived as obstructionist or irrational. Dems lose nothing, therefore, unless the obstructionist charge sticks. So, Moderate Republicans ask the following: is gaining a few ultra-right judges that we don't even like much worth the ENTIRE agenda for the next year and a half (not to mention the lack of a judicial filibuster should we need it in the future). Everyone knows the answer is 'no.'

So why bring it up? Because the preferences may not be as we surmise.
1. Some Republicans think the "Obstructionist" charge beat Daschle, and that it could work here to hurt the Dems later. Thus, they incorrectly think the Dems have something to lose by pulling the grim trigger, and they more to gain than just a few judges.
2. The Far Right wants to be paid for electing Bush, and what they want is this: a Supreme Court Justice. If the filibuster is gone on judicial nominees, they'll get a wingnut on the bench. For that, they would sacrifice all else. They want to foment a crisis.
3. Republicans in the Senate don't really have a second-term agenda left. They don't care about SS reform, which is all Bush has left. So even moderates don't care about shutting down the Senate, plus they fend off attacks from the right while doing so.
4. Many believe the Senate will likely remain in Republican hands through the next two election cycles, i.e., until at least 2010. By then, you could replace even more of the Supreme Court.
5. Arlen Specter thinks the threat of the nuclear option can and has caused the Dems to bend on certain judicial nominees. It ratchets up the pressure. No new nominees have been filibustered recently. Perhaps the threat is working?
6. The danger is that ALL the game theory becomes swamped by a new set of preferences that emerge from the game itself: i.e., the supreme desire not to lose, or to be perceived as having lost. This is WWI in a nutshell. Or, as Henry puts it in the Lion in Winter, to the question of (paraphrase) "what does it matter how you die, if you're going to die?: A: "When the fall is all that's left, it matters a great deal." The far right WANTS the trigger pulled. They want to escalate the rhetoric to the point that "not losing" takes precedence over all else.  

// posted by The Law Talking Guy

Dr. Strangelove said...

LTG says, "Thus, the threat to shut down the Senate is credible." I'm sorry... I just don't see it. Suppose the Republicans decide to go for the showdown and they win. Then what? What do the Democrats have to gain by being obstructionist at that point? Aren't they closing the barn door after the horse has already gone? The only reason to follow through on the punishment is to prove their seriousness for future rounds (and perhaps blow off some steam.) But what future rounds would there be that either side--shortsighted by nature anyhow--would care about? Surely shutting down the Senate for a few months is the most the Dems could do before public pressure against obstructionism mounted sufficiently to make them yield.

LTG says, "Moderate Republicans must ask the following: is gaining a few ultra-right judges that we don't even like much worth the ENTIRE agenda for the next year and a half (not to mention the lack of a judicial filibuster should we need it in the future). Everyone knows the answer is 'no.'"

You forget the downside: pissing off Bush, Cheney, GOP leadership, and evangelicals (the "Club for Growth" will speak with $ even where evangelicasls don't hold the votes.) And if you believe, as I do, that any Democratic response would fizzle after at most a few months... of course that makes the picture different. And when LTG's #6 kicks in, the GOP will not back down.

My only hope is that moderate Republicans, sick of being jerked around by their leaders, will use this as an opportunity to play for the moderate vote... and perhaps teach the evangelicals that they are going to have to bargain and make nice to get what they want, instead of raw intimidation. Senators hate to be intimidated by anyone. Because if there is anytthing possibly more universal than stupidity, it's pride.

I'll hope for that.

Anonymous said...

Dr. Strangelove asks what Dems have to gain by shutting down the Senate? Answer: block all substantive Republican legislation, including gay marriage amendments etc., which is a HUGE boon to all Democratic donors. Also (as Dr. Strangelove says) pissing off Bush, Cheney, GOP leadership, and evangelicals (the "Club for Growth" will speak with $ even where evangelicasls don't hold the votes.) Plays well to the base.

The real question is whether the charge "obstructionist" will hurt under this set of circumstances. I think they will be seen as courageous, and Republicans increasingly will look like bullies.  

// posted by The Law Talking Guy

Anonymous said...

LTG's criticisms of game theoretical analyses misses the point of game theory. It is not intended to provide a detailed and thick descriptive prediction. Rather it is a tool we can use to double check our intuition.

Of course the assumptions about preferences are key. That's why one needs to keep those assumptions as broad and intuitive as possible (like, conservatives like conservative judges, progressives like progressive judges etc). In my view inserting assumptions that all Republicans - even established names from outside the South - are living in fear of the Religious Right or a lame duck President is far more out on a limb than the assumptions presented in the origional post.

But this is one strength of game theory. It reveals the basic assumptions for all to see. The loosey goosey thick description stuff does not. If you diagree with a game theory model's assumptions you can say "I don't buy assumption X" or "you left out a decision here" and then a debate can get right to the point. That is a huge advantage over what social science did before game theory.

It is possible to criticize a particular model's assumptions without dismissing the use of game theory in general.  

// posted by Raised By Republicans

Dr. Strangelove said...

For what it's worth, I think RxR's description of game theory and its use as a tool in social science is dead on the money. Could not have said it better myself.

The Dems "courageous" obstructionism will "play to the base," but that's all. Moderates will see the Dems as stalling and denying Bush's nominees a "fair, up-or-down vote" on the floor of the Senate... which is accurate, if incomplete. Getting back to a comment I made elsewhere: the 'filiuster' is a losing issue. The winning issue is the bad judicial nominees.

Democrats need to portray the Republicans as "trying to start a culture war." They need to say explicitly that it is the Repulicans who are making war on people of faith. They need to point out that the Republicans are whining about their own judges ("Bush v. Gore" says it all about who's got a stranglehold on the judiciary!) The Republican's own judges are balking at the new radical, self-righteous Republican extremism! So now the Republicans are now trying to pack the bench with "judicial oliticians" (or "extremists"... some such thing) to do their hatchet-jobs for them.

If the Dems can make the nominees look bad, then they have a good shot of making their last-ditch defense of the courts look courageous. But not until then.

Anonymous said...

But, but, but ...

Take a look at this poll . If you don't care to, I'll give you the highlight: 26% of people support changing the Senate rules to make it easier for Republican nominees to get through. Now what does that mean? Either people have a good understanding of the checks and balances system and are wary of De Tocqueville's "tyranny of the majority" (unlikely) or they have it in their heads that Bush is trying to push through some scary justices. Either way, 26% is obscenely low. 

// posted by Bell Curve

Anonymous said...

Valiant defenses of Game Theory notwithstanding, my point has been conceded: what matters are the "inputs" to the "game", i.e., the preferences and assumptions. Once that HARD work is done, understanding the relationships thereafter was, before game theory, called 'common sense' or 'strategic thinking' or 'thinking it through.' I'm demeaning the complexity of game theory for a reason: even social scientists tend to check game theory results against common sense rather than the other way around (whether or not they admit it) and the only interesting articles in social science are where common sense/conventional wisdom are overturned. Also, most the discussion here (e.g., "grim trigger" or "tit for tat") has been extremely straightforward and requires no advanced math to understand (not that math can't help express it, but why write in Latin when the vernacular will do?).

True, game theory is better organized now, which means that today any set of inputs should have the same predicatble result. But that has a price: mastery of the game is often considered so valuable that social scientists overlook the quality of the inputs. Indeed, a generation of social scientists is being trained who have so little interest in or respect for what RbR calls "thick description" that they don't mind getting all their inputs from a single poll or some crude formula for coding events. There is a resulting tendency to define legislators or parties in terms of voting records or court according to who "wins." The desire to make the math work strongly further incentivizes researchers to view data inputs as thinly as possible (for a prosaic example, some like view politics on a two-dimensional scale).

So game theory is neat, but just put it in a footnote if you will. We can all understand it without the fancy rhetoric, because it largely is common sense (one generally explains the prisoner's dilemma by asking readers to think about being within the dilemma, rather than by deduction from mathematical principles, because that works -- contrast that with calculus and Zeno's paradox). Thanks, RbR, for the context, but now let's get back to the real discussion: what are the preferences and assumptions of the actors here, because those will make all the difference. And this dicussion requires thick description and nuance.

I think it worth noting that both sides are jockeying for the coveted position of "status quo" because it conveys a moral high ground, i.e., legitimacy to their position. Where the issue is "what should the rules be?" the opponent of the status quo, the challenger, is viewed as highly suspect. Challengers have the burden of proof, unless a prima facie case has already been made to the public and press that the rules are bad --almost impossible after not only 200 years but a strong public presumption long indulged by all sides that the constitution is perfect.


// posted by The Law Talking Guy

Anonymous said...

With all respect to Mr. De Tocqueville, the idea of "tyrann of the majority" is a frequent topic the Federalist Papers.

66% oppose the change in the Senate rules. I think people recognize that the fillibuster is the ultimate institution in our government for preserving the status quo. Many Americans are "small c" conservatives - that is, they fear change regardless of who is proposing it or why.

Another poll I found on reports the question: do you think federal judges are too liberal, too conservative or about right. The poll says that 52% of Americans think that federal judges are "about right." That's not a recipe for mass support for the Bush/Delay assault on the federal courts.

I saw on PBS Newshour that Frist said in his "Sunday of Justice" rally that he would not support De Lay's approach to the judiciary. Why would he go out of his way to mention this disagreement on this issue in this context? Why would he go out of his way to mention De Lay by name (and the fact that he disagrees with him) to a Religious audience? Is this a signal that Frist's heart is not in the "nuclear option?" 

// posted by Raised By Republicans

Dr. Strangelove said...

Bell Curve-- it's the way the question was phrased: "Would you support or oppose changing Senate rules to make it easier for the Republicans to confirm Bush's judicial nominees?"

Don't you think you would get a markedly different result with, "Would you support or oppose changing Senate rules to stop the Democrats from filibustering Bush's judicial nominees?"

Dr. Strangelove said...

I was also an undergrad economics major, and I saw game theory abused there too. Like a lot of higher mathematics used in the social sciences, game theory was employed more to give the pretense of "rigor" than to say anything of substance. GIGO applies to game theory as much as to any other model. And since mathematical lingo can be quite hard to penetrate, the "Emperor's New Clothes" principle applies: nobody wants to question its utility lest they appear unsophisticated. In a similar context, Albert Einstein famously complained that quantum mechanics was, "a witches' calculus... adequately protected by its great complexity against being proved wrong." So I believe I know where LTG is coming from in his criticism of game theory.
That being said, game theory is still a useful and legitimate tool, for precisely the reasons RxR described. Even the simple cases help organize thoughts and identify assumptions. And the more complex cases can (sometimes) provide pleasant surprises. The best example is a repeated prisoner's dilemma, where all participants know the game will be repeated exactly n times (surprisingly, even though you may play 100 times, the dominant strategy by backwards induction--better than tit-for-tat or anything else--is never to cooperate). Sure, game theory is just codified common sense--but then, all of science is just common sense, codified and quantified so it can be doublechecked and carried to its logical conclusion. You don't need a calculator to do addition either--but it helps. said...

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