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Column: How to win the game of shutdown chicken

The next few weeks are going to get ugly. There is a real possibility of a government shutdown or a default on the debt. Or both.

Republicans are taking a stand because this is their last, best chance to stop Obamacare before it is implemented. Their strategy is to cause enough chaos that Democrats will cave and delay or weaken Obamacare; chances of success are slim. So why manufacture a crisis? Why the obsession with Obamacare?

It boils down to redistribution. Obamacare taxes the rich in various ways (these taxes are, by the way, already implemented) and uses that money to provide health care to those who lack it. It is a move toward greater redistribution of wealth that Republicans (and, they would remind us, their constituents) staunchly oppose.

In context, a little more redistribution doesn't seem too threatening. Inequality has been on a steady rise for 40 years and government help for the poor was sharply reduced in the 1990s. Numbers are up on some programs — disability and food stamps, for instance, but that is due to the weak economy. Poverty has risen 4 percent since its low in 1973, and the United States remains the only developed country that does not provide universal health care.

Conservatives, however, do not see Obamacare as a minor victory for the left in an ongoing war; they see it is a capitulation of territory that, once lost, is never going to be retaken.

These politicians fundamentally distrust government, viewing it is a hydra that is ever growing larger and more destructive without brave leaders to continually chop off heads. They understand that they are in a minority but see their task as all the more urgent because others fail to grasp the dangers of big government. They are either unaware of or unsatisfied that government spending and the deficit have both declined markedly in the past few years.

With the implementation of Obamacare looming, the Republican leadership has decided to let the far right take a stand. Once Obamacare is in effect people will like it, especially those who will finally have health insurance. Others will see that the world did not end despite the predictions of doom. Hence the decision to take a stand now, before Obamacare gains credibility and Republicans lose it completely.

How will it play out? At base it is a game of chicken. The Republicans do not really want to shut down the government or default on our debts, but they are willing to endure such things for their noble cause of preventing the subversive redistribution of wealth. Democrats are betting that voters will punish the extremists who are forcing us into a crisis.

The game of chicken is hard to predict. The issue is commitment. If you can convince the opponent that you are truly committed, whatever the consequences, he will likely blink and avoid catastrophe. In actual games of chicken, game theorists recommend locking the steering wheel in place, blaring the stereo and closing your eyes as you hit the gas.

President Barack Obama has been demonstrating commitment by insisting that he will neither negotiate over the debt ceiling nor sign a law that repeals Obamacare. However, Obama did negotiate over the debt ceiling once before, so Republicans see some hope.

As for the Republicans, the key question is what would make them change their position. The disruptions caused by a shutdown or a default may be seen by many conservatives as short-term bloodletting necessary to cure the disease of big government.

Conservatives in the House are likely to point to support from their districts and claim that they are representing constituents' wishes. The united front Republicans are presenting now, however, may start to fracture as real economic damage is done and moderate Republican lobbies push for a resolution.

What should we do in the meantime? While Obama's instincts are likely to instruct government employees to minimize damage from the shutdown, he should consider the opposite.

The quicker people feel the pain, the sooner they will demand an end to it. In games of commitment it is a good strategy to take a stand and then cut off communication. So, Obama should make his position clear and then skip town. Maybe schedule a trip to Europe and work on the trade pact. Even better, he could travel around the country and have town halls in every state just to listen to people and explain why the government is not really a monster but a necessary part of the economy. Anything to keep him away from Washington and the bad news that will tempt him to negotiate too soon. We need a little more redistribution in this country.

Alan Green is a professor in the economics department at Stetson University. He wrote this exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.

Column: How to win the game of shutdown chicken 09/24/13 [Last modified: Wednesday, September 25, 2013 10:42am]

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