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Thank You, Massachusetts

January 20th, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments

So the tea-party Republican candidate beats the Democratic candidate for the open senate seat in Massachusetts and now the 60-seat “filibuster-proof” majority enjoyed by the democrats in the senate has been reduced to a puny, measley, miserable 59-seats, with which Obama and the democrats can’t possibly get anything done.

Oh wait, they couldn’t get anything done before even with 60 seats. It’s just that now there’s one more person on Capitol Hill to stand up against the Health Care reform bill so they’ll have to make it even less progressive and even more of a gift to the private insurance industry. Huzzah for democracy!

Seriously though, what changed? Not a damned thing except for the political narrative. Those on the right claim that their gain is due to the fact that Obama is too liberal. Those on the left claim that their loss is due to the fact that Obama is too conservative.

Well, anyone paying attention can see that Obama is not “too liberal”. Signing back-room deals with big business, proposing paltry, in-name-only regulations to the financial industry, pressuring democrats to drop the public option in order to win the vote of Joe Lieberman without even attempting to pressure Lieberman—you’d have to be living in an alternate reality to honestly believe that Obama’s problem is that he’s a radical leftist.

But most of the media will probably accept this narrative. It’s much easier than the narrative coming from the left, which is the more reasonable one—disillusioned democrats stayed home in this election because Obama has lost credibility with them by showing too much deference to the powers-that-be that he promised to fight. This narrative is just too complex and nuanced for the mainstream media.

But if somehow you get enough pundits and talking heads to at least acknowledge the possibility that this is a legitimate interpretation of the election results, it could be a blessing in disguise, which is why I’m glad the democrats lost the seat. They’ve been taking way too much for granted so far. Obama has assumed that because his republican opponents are getting crazier and more ridiculous by the minute, the voters will have no choice but to give him and his party their support at the polls because the alternative is obviously so much worse.

Hopefully this election result will be something of a wake-up call. It’s a simple lesson in Game Theory, which I’ve been recently been studying and finding rather fascinating. They did a study in which they had hundreds of people play a simple, two-player “ultimatum game”: Player A and Player B get $10. Player A decides how to split the money between them and Player B either decides to accept the offer or decline, and if he declines, neither player gets any money.

The results of the ultimatum game go right to the heart of what’s happening in the political arena today. When Player A decides to evenly split the money ($5 and $5 or even $6 and $4), Player B almost always accepts the deal. But whenever Player A splits the money too unevenly ($9 and $1 or $9.99 and $0.01), Player B almost always refuses, even to his own detriment. It may be the case that a dollar or even one cent is better than nothing, but it’s more important to Player B to punish unfairness than to accept the paltry offer.

Since he took office, Obama has been offering $1 to his supporters while giving the other $9 to the corporations and other entrenched interests. By staying home, Massachusetts democrats have rejected the dollar, and rightly so.

There are those who say we should just accept whatever compromises the democrats are able to get for us, which may serve everyone best in the short-term. But I’m a long-term guy, and I’d advocate this strategy of “altruistic punishment” whereby we sacrifice a greater payoff for the sake of principle. Adopting this strategy may lead to more republican gains in the short-term, but it’s the only way the democrats will get the message that if they want to keep control, they’d better start offering more.

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