How Not to Refute an Academic Blogger in One Embarrassing Omission

On Megan McArdle, Mel Gibson, and inconvenient facts.

While my recent post on the tax deal has sparked a fair amount of debate, which I hope to respond to soon, I wouldn’t normally bother with Megan McArdle’s lengthy and snarky attack on it.  But when she calls what she takes to be my scorched-earth position on negotiating strategy (not actually my position, but more on that in a later post) a “big favorite of academics, who I infer have watched a lot of Mel Gibson movies”—since academics would never get the idea that a reputation for craziness provides negotiating advantages from, say, a Nobel Prize-winning economist—my professional pride is involved.  So bring it on. Let’s see what a Village journalist considers hard-nosed political wisdom.

Writes McArdle,

Sabl’s question seems to me like an incredibly unrealistic one.  It assumes that by really slick application of game theory, progressives can somehow move the dial, so that what negotiations theorists call the ZOPA–the Zone of Possible Agreement–shifts dramatically, making possible much more progressive outcomes than have been realized recently.
But a lot of what professional negotiators do is simply recognize what the limits of the ZOPA are.  They don’t waste energy trying to shift it to encompass impossible outcomes.  Immediately after Democrats have lost a midterm election by historic margins (something I believe I may have mentioned) is not a propitious time to be trying to shift the ZOPA leftward.
The logic of that can’t be faulted.  After all, the Republicans would have been incredibly unrealistic to respond to historic losses in two straight elections by moving rightward.  And they would have been heavily punished at the ballot box if they had.
By the way, Ms. McArdle, in case the previous two sentences were too highfalutin’ and academic for you, I was being ironic.  Don’t know what that means?  There’s an excellent summary in this Ethan Hawke movie.

Update: See Megan McArdle’s comments, and mine, below.  Her comments are substantive in content and handsome in tone, and I hope my response is too.  Elbows having been thrown, I think we’re ready to shake hands and play on.

Author: Andrew Sabl

Andrew Sabl, a political theorist, is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Toronto. He is the author of Ruling Passions: Political Offices and Democratic Ethics and Hume’s Politics: Coordination and Crisis in the History of England, both from Princeton University Press. His research interests include political ethics, liberal and democratic theory, toleration, the work of David Hume, and the realist school of contemporary political thought. He is currently finishing a book for Harvard University Press titled The Uses of Hypocrisy: An Essay on Toleration. He divides his time between Toronto and Brooklyn.

27 thoughts on “How Not to Refute an Academic Blogger in One Embarrassing Omission”

  1. "The logic of that can’t be faulted. After all, the Republicans would have been incredibly unrealistic to respond to historic losses in two straight elections by moving rightward. And they would have been heavily punished at the ballot box if they had."

    Roger Ebert claims this 1932 New Yorker comic by James Thurber was "the most perfect cartoon caption I've ever seen".

    I tend to agree…

  2. My amateur pride is hurt because I raised the crazy point, not Andrew.

    Look what´s happening now. The Republicans are silent, wondering if they´ve been conned; the congressional Dems are kicking up an almighty fuss, with Sanders doing a symbolic filibuster. Result; the ZOPA is now about tweaks to the left of the deal, not the right.

  3. Have to say I do agree with her bottom line: [A]fter a symbolic vote designed to appease the Calisthenics Instructors in their base, they'll cave and pass the deal.

    I'm coming to appreciate that it was the Democratic congress critters that put Obama in the position of making a deal like this because they didn't have the spine to vote on this before the election. I still wish he had been more vocal in repudiating the Republican's work strike position.

  4. Says McArdle:

    What is simply not possible, no matter how energetically you perform your Cartoon Calisthenics, is a deal in which the Republicans don't get anything they want.

    Says me:

    A lot of folks still think that Republicans want tax cuts for the middle class. The tougher the Democrats are on this issue, the more the Republicans' real priorities are revealed.

  5. Are the Bush tax cuts really worth preserving for the middle class at the expense of extending them for the wealthy? Even accepting that $250k doesn't really mark the difference between middle and upper class in some parts of the country, where is the analysis to show that these reduced rates are worth anything in dollar terms to any voter other than millionaires and billionaires who benefitted from them when they were first enacted? The AMT alone makes most of the existing income tax rate structure irrelevant to the middle and upper middle classes who might be expected to object to a tax hike now. Why haven't the Dems and the administration agreed long ago that the Bush tax cuts must be allowed to expire as originally planned and good riddance?! Where is the Democratic alternative to reintroduce a progressive tax rate structure with multiple marginal rates at levels far above $250k? And a comprehensive package of alternative stimulus legislation that might actually fund Democratic priorities of education, environmental initiatives, renewable energy, mass transit, and rebuilding the crumbling transportation infrastructure and watershed management that has been starved of resources the past 20 + years? It is not just the administration but the Congressional Democrats who failed to propose any real alternative to GWB's Republican "starve-the-beast" tax and fiscal policies that took a budget surplus and gave us a balooning budget deficit.

  6. I don't think you have it right: McMegan has linked to you, taken on your arguments, brought a lot of folks in to read your post who might not have, otherwise. This is policy conversation outside of your own echo chamber, and you should relish it. She was not as disdainful of other's arguments as RBC bloggers often are. I think you got a gift.

    As to "After all, the Republicans would have been incredibly unrealistic to respond to historic losses in two straight elections by moving rightward. And they would have been heavily punished at the ballot box if they had." I think they were punished – they didnt get the Delaware, Colorado, or Nevada Senate seat, after all, and the Reep nominee in Alaska was defeated by Murkowski, who had lost the primary. Those seats were clearly within their grasp, if they had nominated more palatable candidates. The Dems lost a whole lot of seats on which their grasp was always going to be tenuous, given the underlying politics of the districts. The recent Dem majority was a result of epiphenomena – national disaffection with George Bush, and the Jack Abramoff corruption, and Foley and the page-boys, and the excitement of the charming and eloquent Obama contrasted with the leaden McCain candidacy. Once those things weren't in play, things were bound to swing back.

  7. Dave Schutz: I like a good argument, and I'd normally be inclined to agree with you. But McArdle totally mischaracterized my post–which charted complexity across many dimensions and insisted on the called for those with differences on the tax deal not to let our disagreements obscure our larger points of agreement–as a claim that we should uniformly act crazy so as to be able to dictate whatever terms we want. (Kevin Drum, to whom McArdle links, summarized my argument in a slightly unusual way that might lead a sloppy leader to think I'd said that; "I infer" that McArdle read Kevin's post, badly, but didn't bother to read mine, from which she quoted the same sentence Kevin quoted, before trashing it.) She invented out of whole cloth the claim that my criterion for a good compromise was that "Republicans don't get anything they want." And she suggested that I got my ideas about political negotiation from Mel Gibson movies. If this is what a "gift" from the mainstream media looks like, I'm regifting.

    As for the election: yes, in a few Senate races some extreme candidates lost when more moderate Republicans could have won—*stipulating* the very favorable political environment for their party that extreme and intransigent positions had, it seems clear, done nothing to undermine but on the contrary much to build. And we forget the Tea Party candidates (Rubio, Paul) who won, and who have in doing so made respectable positions much more extreme than any the political class would have found credible in 2008. All this is to focus on the Senate. In the House, extremism cost the Republicans more or less nothing at all.

  8. So you believe that Republicans have moved the zone of possible political deals rightward? How so? They're just repeating a tax deal that was popular the first time around. The party itself may have moved rightward, but I don't see any noticeable shift in the deals they're able to get out of the American political system. I can only think of two major attempted rightward shifts in the last ten years: on Social Security, and on the stimulus. Both ended in disgrace and capitulation, though the latter has some resonance as a political issue. The tea parties are emphasizing their areas of agreement with the American public–lower taxes, less (non-specific) spending–with good reason.

    You may perceive that the GOP has managed to block legislation that might have been popular fifty or eighty years ago, or in Sweden, or in a kinder, more socially responsible America, but that does not constitute an appreciable shift in the political landscape of today. They're fighting for the continuation of tax cuts that were passed ten years ago.

    I would say exactly the same thing to a libertarian wondering how they can set the stage for Social Security privatisation that I said about you. There is no clever maneuver that is going to allow you to move outside the limits of what the American voter will tolerate. Eventually, a fiscal crisis may force the matter, but I am highly suspicious that being intransigent–or not–on the tax deal is likely to much improve your bargaining position in that negotiation, which will be conducted mostly with bondholders, not progressives or the tea party. The belief on both sides that they simply need to be more militant to get what they want, or to keep the militants on the other side from getting what *they* want, is, in my opinion, extremely misguided. You might tug the outcome towards the edge of the ZOPA in a very minor way (though you might also alienate voters and get less than you wanted, as conservatives did on Social Security). But you aren't going to be able to set things up so that you get single payer or a 15% flat tax.

  9. Zone of possible deals. Here is a thought experiment – imagine trying to pass the EPA & endangered species acts today. Or even the ADA.

    Something surely has shifted over the years.

  10. Also, on a side note, you are misreading my post to interpret it to be all about you. It isn't. This blog is, of course, one of my favorites, but I do read other ones. Nor is it correct that I didn't read your whole post. I don't think it was a misreading to take issue with one sub-point; I didn't claim that this was the point of the whole post. You seem to have taken the post as a personal attack, for which I apologize.

    As for seeming crazy, it can indeed work. But of course there are a lot of refinements to the steering wheel theory of chicken which point out that the crazy player often doesn't get what he wants, and may kill both parties, or worse, just himself; even game theorists don't think you should run into a negotiation clutching your game theory textbook and expect anything good to come out of it. There are circumstances where seeming crazy works, and circumstances where it doesn't. It rather depends on whether you think this is more like playing chicken, or doing a merger. I'd argue that this isn't much like playing chicken–there are multiple equilibria, one of which is that neither side wins.

    Moreover, you have to be able to credibly deliver crazy, which as I think I mentioned in the post, Democrats can't, since they're about to lose the House where the most credibly crazy people are (from both parties). This was exactly the point about the Mel Gibson crack–there seems to me to be a tendency to paint out neat game theory scenarios which unfold along a few simple rules. Those things do occasionally happen, which makes every game theorist I have ever met sound like a six year old on Christmas when they discover one. But my understanding is that the reason they sound so excited is that examples where single principles–or two or three–are clearly applicable, and play out as expected, aren't all that common.

  11. Megan (since this announces my transition to lowering the temperature, and strangely, last names seem a bit rude nowadays),

    I think I agree with eighty percent of what you've written in your two comments. This reveals, I guess, the diminishing returns of my hypothetically defending a claim I don't agree with–in this case the "crazy-gets-you-huge-victories" theory of negotiations–for the sake of avenging an offense that was not intended (and the indirect apology for which is in any case accepted). I now think I probably overreacted, apologize in turn to the extent that I did, and am fully content to make peace.

    I do think we disagree seriously on a few matters. I think that on taxes and spending Americans think they have strong ideological opinions but can be easily manipulated when it comes to how they assess particular proposals. This is particularly true when parties in power use their ability to set agendas to obscure the real consequences of what they just voted on–as the Republicans thumpingly did with regard to the tax cuts, supposedly limited to ten years but in practice meant to be impossible to repeal, and the Democrats admittedly did as well, though to a lesser degree, in obscuring the future costs of the Affordable Care Act. This is a major theme of Hacker and Pierson's *Off-Center,* which is getting new attention this week, as well as my “Exploiting the Clueless: Heresthetic, Overload, and Rational Ignorance,” in Wayne S. LeCheminant and John M. Parrish's edited volume *Manipulating Democracy: Democratic Theory, Political Psychology, and Mass Media* (Routledge, 2010), which tries to treat Hacker and Pierson's point in more theoretical terms. Nor am I sure that the analogy with Social Security privatization holds here, since (depending on how you ask it) letting the tax cuts for the rich expire is quite popular, which privatizing social security isn't. But I admit that my preferred outcome, i.e. letting all the tax cuts expire and doing stimulus some other way, is not popular. In fact, that was one of the main points of my first post on the tax deal, which must have gotten obscured later.

    I agree that Democrats can't credibly threaten a "no surrender" negotiating strategy, *and* that what such a strategy can accomplish is often overestimated by those on both sides hoppsed up on partisan testosterone. (I doubt that people thinking they're the first to discover game theory, or Schelling's preferred term "strategies of commitment," plays as much of a role, but I guess it's possible.) The razzle-dazzle can win quite important tactical victories, but can't move mountains.

    I'll clarify my own position in a new post soon. Quick version: in talking about changing "baseline expectations" I meant setting a new *policy* and *cognitive* baseline for negotiations, by saying no to a deal and being willing to let the tax cuts expire, not a new strategy of impossibly hard bargaining under existing negotiating conditions. I actually don't think the President could have negotiated a deal much better than this one, nor that rejecting this deal would make it possible to negotiate a new and better one.

  12. Megan, I'm glad you've taken my advice and backed away from your admission that for Republicans, tax cuts for the middle-class aren't "anything they want." Yes, everyone knows it, but someone in your position can't say it.

    It is implausible to shift the responsibility for the Republican elements of this compromise from the Republicans to "the American people." The American people would be fine with Obama's pre-compromise proposals on this – indeed, they actually elected him while he quite publicly made his tax proposal.

    And as you well know (but yes, can't admit for obvious reasons), Bush and the Republicans sunsetted the tax cuts purely for political reasons. Your claim that Bush's tax cuts were approved indefinitely by the American people is entirely a-historical – else why would we be having this conversation? Literally the only way Bush and a Republican Congress got the tax cuts through was by promising that they would have a limited term. Again: You know this.

  13. I don't know whether or not Democrats can "credibly threaten a “no surrender” negotiating strategy," and I'm not sure why McCardle thinks Democrats cannot credibly deliver crazy after losing the House when Republicans managed to do so against large majorities.

    In any event, it sure seems to be working for Republicans. "Don't tread on me" Tea Party crazy managed to win elections across the country by mobilizing the thirty percent of the population that denies climate change, still believes in trickle down economics, would bring back John C. Calhoun nullification, and thinks Obama is a Muslim.

    And it's not just the gun nuts in Waco going around the bend. GOP elites have even publicly announced their intention to destroy the Obama Presidency and prevent his reelection by blocking everything, including new policies which would improve the economy. This sounds like a "no surrender" negotiating strategy to me, and it worked in the sense that they got what they wanted: expansion of both the wealth gap and the deficit, which will both contribute to the economic stagnation they rightly assume will threaten Obama's (somewhat) progressive efforts. They bring new meaning to the phrase "destroy the village in order to save it."

    All of this depends on the glibertarian notion pushed by people like Megan McCardle that Americans do not need to work as a team because the magic of free markets will aggregate all our economic conflicts into good time happy prosperity. This did not work early in the 20th Century and it won't work early in the 21st.

    The solution is exactly the one Mr. Sabl recommends: "change baseline expectations so as to achieve progressive outcomes in future negotiations." Whether or not the idea came from a Mel Gibson film, it is a good one.

  14. I believe our core disagreement is that I think the American public has strong preferences, but they are irrational: they have very strong status quo bias on both taxes and spending, and also have a global preference for lower taxes on themselves, with very narrow preferences for higher spending. Their preferences on regulation are mixed, but fairly predictible, and surprisingly often involve an irrational fear of being poisoned.

    PPACA, like the social security reform, violated those preferences; the tax cut deal, like the original tax cuts, does not. I don't think the preference set has moved much. In some sense, I think PPACA was only possible because many Democrats somehow convinced themselves that the preferences had, or could, move; they hadn't and didn't, and many of the legislators involved consequently seem to have lost their jobs.

  15. Civil debate between intelligent people — manna from heaven — and here I thought this was the Interweb.

  16. Am I just a simpleton if I point out that even a silly, stupid Democrat can see that a party or a politician should flog an issue-that-polls-at-70% til the cows come home, and should in a rational world welcome every attempt by the opposition to stand up for the reverse (unpopular) position, and should relish the prospect of a protracted fight drawing media attention to the respective stances of each party?

    But that even a silly, stupid Democrat won't be able or willing to do that, when the influence of the political and corporate global ruling class has turned the Democratic Party into the Other Party That Serves the Corporate Global Ruling Class But Has the Feature of Paying Lip Service to Progressive Values?

    I mean, I'm no political expert, or game theorist, or any other kind of expert, but this premise has clear explanatory value for the seemingly odd behavior of congressional Democrats.

  17. Megan McArdle says:

    "So you believe that Republicans have moved the zone of possible political deals rightward? How so? "

    Look at the political situation in 2008, and now.

    "They’re just repeating a tax deal that was popular the first time around."

    So popular that Bush & Co. had to use Evul Rekunsillyashun to pass it, after lying through their teeth about the need and the effects.

  18. There is nothing irrational about fearing that food producers, chemical companies, and other manufacturers will poison Americans if government does not regulate them. Virtually every corporation rationally avoids paying the true cost of production, and this results in poison air, poison food, and poison water almost every time if no one pays attention. There is a reason why Erin Brockovich is back Hinkley and back in the news.

    This is why the wealthy want to drown government in a bath tub, and politicians on both sides help them out. The American public, as Betsey points out, has a preference on the tax cuts: end them for the very wealthy so they can help pay for the infrastructure (roads, bridges, education, judges, national defense) that makes their wealth possible. The problem is that our representatives, who have very different incentives, aren't listening.

  19. "I agree that Democrats can’t credibly threaten a “no surrender” negotiating strategy…"

    I think that the threat was made, and was somewhat credible, which is why Republicans agreed to include an extension of unemployment benefits in the bill. The thing is that we don't know whether Obama could have gotten more.

    At one point President Clinton refused to compromise further with Republicans and the Republicans forced a government shutdown. This was a risky move on Clinton's part, but Clinton judged the political situation correctly and a few days later the Republicans backed down. Obama hasn't engaged in a showdown with Republicans like that, so he has less credibility when he says to the political left that this is the best deal he could do,

  20. The key difference between now and '95 is that Bob Dole isn't in the Senate anymore. Republicans don't particularly have to worry about their own leaders sneaking into unscheduled midnight sessions to betray them. (Something Dole was well known for, there were actually jokes at the time about having him trailed to sound the alarm if he headed back to Washington. A pity they were just jokes…) This makes their negotiating position much more credible.

  21. Elbows having been thrown, I think we’re ready to shake hands and play on.

    Why would you shake hands with someone that uses them for wiping? I mean seriously, of all the conservative bloggers Megan is by far the most dishonest at characterizing her opponent's positions. Even other libertarians hate her. Just ignore her, she is an attention whore.

  22. Just to correct what I believe to be an inaccurate interpretation, Republicans were neither punished nor rewarded for their positioning in the last election. It was all about the D's and their lurch to the left on health care, cap and trade, etc. that caused the public to re-center things.

    But you are right about one thing – in the old days, party bosses would not have allowed certain extreme and incompetent candidates to run. If those candidates were replaced even by mediocrities, R's would have won a Senate majority too, and Sen. Reid would be looking forward to his retirement in less than three weeks.

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