National Opinions

April 17, 2011

Budget talks: Political chicken and limited authority

Many commentators have pointed out that the recent standoff in Washington resembled a game of chicken. Now that we've pulled back from the brink and the government is not in immediate danger of shutting down, perhaps this would be a good time to review what we know about the game.

In its purest form, chicken is played by driving two automobiles directly toward each other at sufficient speed so that if neither driver swerves, the cars will collide head on and both drivers will be killed. The first driver to swerve is a chicken, and the other is the winner.

Though no rational person would voluntarily play such a game, sometimes — such as when a budget is overdue and a government shutdown is imminent — the situation is unavoidable. So how might a rational actor play?

One way, the literature suggests, is to make sure the other driver is watching, rip the steering wheel off and throw it out the window. This says: "I no longer have the ability to steer. In order to avoid certain death, you are going to have to swerve."

In other, less dramatic contexts, this is known as the "limited authority" technique. It's used when you make an offer on a car and the salesman goes to talk to his manager. When he returns, he says: "I want to see you in this car. But my boss won't let me do it at this price." The salesman would have you believe he does not have the authority to give you what you want.

One way limited authority can be presented is to say my constituency won't let me compromise. From the reporting, it appears that House Republicans used this method to get $38 billion cut from the national budget.

With respect to most negotiators and most issues, half a loaf is better than none. Principles, however, don't work that way. So another way to signal that you will not move on an issue is to declare that it is a matter of principle. Negotiation theorists refer to nonnegotiable issues as "sacred." If an issue is truly sacred, even the idea of negotiating about it is offensive.

Abortion is the mother of all sacred issues for both sides. Introducing sacred issues into political negotiations adds intensity, but it also reduces the likelihood of settlement. This appears to have been the subtext when President Barack Obama refused to budge on funding for Planned Parenthood. "Nope. Zero," he said. Subtext: Don't even ask.

Finally, the limited-authority technique can be played with judicious use of craziness. If I can convince you that I am so crazy I would rather be dead than chicken, you will swerve and I will win. We saw some of that in this last go-round. But there are problems with craziness. Like toothpaste, once it's out of the tube, it's hard to get it back in. And feigned craziness is less convincing and therefore less effective than the real thing. On the other hand, when a sane person plays chicken with a crazy person, the crazy person wins.

Disputes settled with threats and ultimatums do not tend to stay settled. That, and the many issues ducked in this round, means we'll see this game again, and with no loss of ill will.

Goldman is an arbitrator and mediator and the author of "The Science of Settlement: Ideas for Negotiators."


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