Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Today's Shutdown Thought: The Definition of Compromise

As we are now in the second day of government shutdown, with no clear end in sight, I wanted to consider what this word "compromise" means. I see it thrown around a lot, especially by people who just want "both sides to compromise". Our media reinforces this equivocation suggesting that both sides are equally unwilling to give. This is not to say that there have never been times when Democrats have been unwilling to compromise, but rather that in this particular situation, the blame truly does fall on one side and only one side.

So how does compromise work?

It starts with the articulation of preferences. I say that I want X, Y, and Z. You say that you want A, B, and C. I say there's no way I'll accept A, and I don't like B and C. You say there's no way you can accept Z, and you don't like X and Y. From these preferences, we should be able to find a deal somewhere in the middle. Ultimately, a compromise in this case would involve us settling on X, Y, A and B.

This is the nature of compromise. A deal gets struck where neither side gets everything they want, but they do get something. And both sides may also get some things they don't want. You're not supposed to love the compromise, you're supposed to live with it.

But it all begins by examining preferences to find something that can work. This is where I feel this government shutdown differs from past ones, and what makes compromise seem more impossible than ever before.

In past government shutdowns, the preference sets have made sense. Democrats want to keep the government open at current funding levels. Republicans want to keep the government open at significantly reduced funding levels. These preferences naturally lend themselves to a compromise: keeping the government open at somewhat reduced funding levels. Even when these compromises feel frustrating, they still make sense.

Democrats this time around have tried to operate based on this past system. They have offered spending cuts in the CR, which would fund the government at lower levels. This was a good attempt to compromise with the old Republican preference model, but things have changed.

The new House Republican preference set is incredibly confusing and impossible to compromise with. Based on their bills and public statements they want to keep the government open, with no preference on funding levels, and stop the Affordable Care Act from taking effect. The problem with this is that they no longer have anything to offer. When they wanted lower funding, they could offer funding levels higher than what they originally wanted. This represented something that they didn't want but would accept because the Democrats did want it. Instead, their only offer of a "give" to Democrats, is to keep the government open. But you can't give away something that is already within your given preference set. This is what makes it clear that the Republicans have no idea of what a compromise looks like.

Of course, this is an analysis which gives them the benefit of the doubt, by assuming that their public statements are true and that keeping the government open is indeed one of their preferences. There's another way to look at the situation. If we assume that they actually do know what a compromise means, then the only possible conclusion that can be made is that they don't actually want the government to be open. In this case their offer is indeed a true compromise. Democrats give up one of their prized possessions, the Affordable Care Act, and Republicans give up theirs, an anarchical market based society, in which no government exists. This is the far more frightening conclusion, but the one which I think holds true for many of these extreme Republicans in Congress. If we assume that they are smart enough to understand the basic concept of compromise (which I do), then truly this Republican party is a group of government officials who don't believe that government should exist. And that insane contradiction is something which every American ought to seriously think about about before the next election. Otherwise we are doomed to an endless cycle of broken government, that leads to a broken America.

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