Anchors and Rancid Chicken: How the Democrats Can Win the Shutdown

In the absence of an external force, an object in motion tends to stay in motion, and an object at rest tends to stay at rest.
-Newton’s First Law of Motion

The Democrats have a problem.

This problem did not begin with Tuesday’s government shutdown. No, this problem began some time ago. It reared its ugly head in the last debt ceiling debate, and the one before that. It was the cause of the sequester. And it’s not going away anytime soon.

In a May 8, 2005 blog post entitled “Why Pay $36.09 for Rancid Chicken?”, Stephen J. Dubner (one of the authors of Freakonomics) bemoaned a poor restaurant experience. In the post, Dubner explained the behavioral economics concept of anchoring—that is, setting a background assumption that provides the starting point for negotiations. Dubner suggests that after a meal of rancid chicken, one has many possible openings with which to begin negotiating a remedy, two of which are useful to illustrate anchoring. First: “’We don’t care for any free dessert, thanks, but considering what happened with the chicken, we’d like you to comp our entire meal.’ That would establish an anchor at 0 percent of the check.” Alternatively, “’Considering what happened with the chicken, would you please ask the manager what you can do about the check.’ That would establish an anchor at 100 percent of the check.”

Being a nice guy, Dubner opts for the second version.

In similar fashion, the Democrats find themselves being fed the Congressional equivalent of rancid chicken. And being (perhaps excessively) nice guys, they’ve allowed an anchor to be set at 100 percent of the check. Perhaps this is intentional, perhaps accidental; but it has happened nonetheless.

Here’s what they’re dealing with: the Tea Party (or some contingent thereof) actually advocates shutting down major portions of the federal government. Senator Ted Cruz, for example, has called for the elimination of the Departments of Education, Commerce, and Energy, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the IRS (Texas Governor Rick Perry, of course, called for the elimination of two of those Departments, along with the Department of Oops).

Guess what? Those agencies had their budgets cut by the sequester. They got shut down last Tuesday. And they will be affected more if the debt ceiling is not raised.

All Ted Cruz had to do was make sure no one did anything.

The Democrats’ problem is that if no one acts, Ted Cruz gets what he wants.

The anchor is set in the wrong place, and in order to avoid inconvenient and embarrassing situations like this shutdown, it needs to be moved. Perhaps in the next set of appropriations bills (assuming such bills ever get passed!), a provision could be included that funds the government at a certain per-day rate for each program. A stronger option symbolically—though certainly harder to practically enforce—would be a constitutional amendment requiring Congress to avoid shutting down the government. Such an amendment would at least send a strong normative message to future Congresses that this kind of behavior is unacceptable.

Whatever the method, in order to properly reset the anchor, Democrats need to create a presumption—enforceable either in courts of law or the court of public opinion—that instead of being the default consequence, shutting down the government is not on the table.

At the restaurant, the manager came over to talk to Dubner about his rancid chicken. “She looked at me intently, still friendly,” he says. “She was about to gamble that I was not the kind of person who would make a scene. After all, I had been friendly throughout our dilemma… [a] nd she plainly thought this behavior would continue. She was gambling that I wouldn’t throw back my chair and holler, that I wouldn’t stand outside the restaurant telling potential customers that I’d gagged on my chicken, that the whole lot of it was rancid, that the chefs either must have smelled it and thought they could get away with it, or, if they hadn’t smelled it, were so spaced out that who knows what else—a spoon, a sliver of thumb, a dollop of disinfectant— might find its way into the next meal.”

There are two ways to have an appropriate anchor. One is to set it properly in the first place—but that option isn’t available anymore. The other is to scream and shout and yell until the whole situation is turned upside down.

I’d advise the Democrats to start yelling louder.

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