@Debt Ceiling: Get What You Want By Doing the Opposite

Today President Barack Obama sent a tweet asking the American public to call, email, or tweet their members of Congress about the debt ceiling negotiation. His tweet was open-ended and was not directed at any particular party. He just asked the public to pressure their representatives to do something on the debt ceiling.

But how exactly should you apply pressure and what should you ask for? It seems obvious right? Just tweet your representative and explain what bill you favor. 


In this situation, the more obvious approach may not be best. In economics, game theorists have noted that there are situations when moving second is best. The competition between the two debt-ceiling bills may be one of these situations. If so, the best way to get what you want is to do the opposite.

Here is how the second-mover advantage applies in this case. If the House proposes a bill first, then the Senate can delay and then reject it, leaving its own plan as the only available option as time runs out. House members will be in the position of having to accept the Senate proposal, else be held responsible for the fiscal detonation of the country.

The same applies in the other direction. If the House can feign paralysis, then it might be able to provoke the Senate to go first out of panic, and then reject the Senate's version and propose its own at the last second. In fact, in light of this order-of-votes issue, I wonder if any of the House Republicans are signaling their disapproval of the Boehner bill in order to delay the vote and thus force the Senate to move first out of fear that no other solutions will emerge.

The bottom line is that when a cataclysmic deadline looms, you want your bill to be the last remaining solution, not the first option proposed.

Actual representatives probably aren't thinking this deeply, but you should. 

What the second mover advantage suggests is that there is a paradox in how support for one bill or another will translate into the chances of that bill being passed. If you support the Reid plan, you should try to gather support for the Boehner plan, and if you support the Boehner plan, you should try to undermine support for it. The plan that moves first has a big disadvantage, and so just pushing blindly for what you want is likely to set in motion a choice situation that ultimately disfavors your preferred option.

One caveat of course is that this strategy is only for the short term and the question of when to switch strategies is a delicate one. To leverage the dynamics of a second mover advantage, one has to be sure that there is still time to get one's preferred bill voted on after the rival bill is rejected. So, on Monday night, it would no longer be smart to try and support the Boehner plan in order to get the Reid plan, because there would be no time for the Senate to pass its own plan before the deadline ran out.

If you're going to tweet at your representative, think hard about the strategic situation, and even if you're just on the sidelines watching, consider the wisdom of rooting for the opposite bill, for now.

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