Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Metablogging -- stag hunts, misalignment, principal agents and all that jazz

Shortly after Josh Marshall posted this analysis of recent events in the GOP, Joseph called me up to compare reactions. We've been having this conversation for so many years that much of it has devolved into a self-referential shorthand. As an illustration, at one point, after a fairly long-winded comment by me, Joseph simply said "Stag hunt." and tossed the ball back to me and we moved on to the next topic.

We agreed (with, I assume, fingers crossed on both ends of the line) that we'd write some posts on the subject, but I'm starting to think that it might be more useful to step back for a minute and talk about how we've been framing the question of what's going on in the Republican Party (politically, not socially or in terms of policy. Those are entirely different metaposts).

For years now, the two of us have been talking about the post-Tea Party GOP in terms of a multi-player stag hunt. Over the past few years the stakes (particularly the costs of failure) have increased. At the same time, participation rates required to take down the stag have also increased. As a result, progressively smaller groups have gained the power to kill the enterprise. (In a different conversation Joseph pointed out that, in a military context, shooting deserters is also a predictable result of this situation.) We could dig deeper into examples and implications (particularly with respect to the trade off between the power of an alliance vs. its stability) but for now I want to limit the discussion to framing.

(there might also be a place here to talk about symmetry breaking, but I'd need to give that some thought first.)

Another way of looking at the story we've found useful is to look at misalignment of interests, especially what looks to us two non-economists as a particularly nasty two-level principal agent problem where a small group of big donors determine the pool of viable candidates and a relatively small but coherent subgroup of the primary voters make the purchasing decisions for the entire party. You'll notice that, like the stag hunt frame, under this scenario small groups can acquire disproportionate power.

And of course there's the mandatory Influence reference, framing the story in terms of social psychology. If you check out the chapters on commitment and consistency, social proof, and scarcity you'll find all sorts of applicable discussions of the ways groups united by a common belief system deal with ideological challenges and the loss of dominance.

Nothing particularly fresh or profound here, but these idea have proven a pretty good framework recently. I'm not saying they should be the basis of the standard narrative -- I'm not sure there should be a standard narrative -- but they do come in handy. More importantly, I think you can make the case that too little of the public discourse is spent examining underlying assumptions and asking about the different ways to frame our questions.

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