Compromising Positions

I’m certainly no expert on game theory and, admittedly, my basic understanding probably comes as much from the Russell Crowe movie A Beautiful Mind as any reading I’ve done. At a simplistic level, though, game theory posits that compromise often fails because the two sides can’t recognize the similarities they share. Because the two sides are most interested in the process (and definitive wins/losses), they miss areas of compatibility and suboptimal deals are brokered.

As Americans head for the fiscal cliff (or don’t head for the fiscal cliff as the case may be), compromise, in theory, is in the air. Or, at least, the word compromise is in the air. President Obama, my Republican representatives tell my local paper, must compromise. “We’re flexible,” they tell us, as long as we get what we want (they imply). I’m sure if I dig deeply enough (like reading another newspaper), I’ll find a similar statement from a variety of Democrats.

The problem, of course, is that compromise is not in the air. Or the water. Or the ozone. Or, certainly, in Washington. The very nature of compromise has been tainted by increasingly extreme views on everything from taxes to abortion to gun ownership. Compromise, the willingness to sacrifice some of our own goals in search of a larger good, has been corrupted to imply capitulation, weakness, and immorality. Some of the blame lies on the American two party political system but most of the blame lies on the shoulders of the American voter. While C-students around the world rejoiced when one of their own was elected president, we should recognize this as the culmination (and perhaps watershed moment) of years of dumbing-down government.

It’s not an issue, necessarily, of increasing radicalized bases: our problems are increasingly ignorant legislators. Compromise requires balance and tolerance. It also demands seeing beyond narrow self-interests and anticipating long-term consequences. Most importantly, governance requires critical thinking skills. As we saw yet again last week, our major political figures, evidently, lack even a basic understanding about science.

Unfortunately, politics has become as much about bravado as governance. John McCain chooses to call out Susan Rice for her Benghazi statements instead of attending an intelligence briefing, a position he has to later recant as he learns the facts. (Please don’t miss the irony of his ignorant comments caused, in part, by missing an intelligence briefing.)  I could list more and more examples of politicians who choose to speak without knowledge, but why keep picking the low hanging fruit. (I was going to write–“but that’s like making fun of the kids who ride the short bus”–but that’s insulting to kids with true special needs.)

When we couple electing intellectually weak politicians with complicated issues (taxes, revenue, and budgeting), we get a fiscal cliff where compromise means, in essence, each side is flexible, but only if the other side will compromise. Or, at the least, if we can make it look like the other side compromised and we didn’t. If we add in an increasingly ignorant (and I don’t mean stupid–I mean ignorance as in we don’t understand issues as their complexity increases), we get, both literally and figuratively, what we pay for.

America probably won’t go over the fiscal cliff. I’m guessing we will have a deal brokered at the last minute to save us from ourselves and our political choices. But the “compromise” will be on paper only. Most of the hard financial choices will be “back loaded” in any deal and deficit savings will kick in about the same time tax increases start–sometime in 2018. Both parties will pledge to “reform” the tax code, leading us to believe either party understands the tax code. Bipartisanship, they will tell us, has triumphed over politics.

And we will believe them. And we will re-elect them. And, unfortunately, we’ll be caught in a compromising position from which we may or may not recover.

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About John Wegner
John Wegner is a Professor of English where he also serves as the Dean of the Freshman College. He and Lana, his wife, have been married over 25 years. They are the parents of two great sons who (so far) haven't ever needed bail money.

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Things I Read

And Things I Learned

Washington Monthly

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Joanne Jacobs

Thinking and Linking by Joanne Jacobs

Inside Higher Ed

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

FiveThirtyEight

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Balloon Juice

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Scott Adams' Blog

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

The Full Feed from HuffingtonPost.com

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

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