For all the political heaving to-and-fro that characterized our recent efforts to raise the debt ceiling, what President Obama signed on Wednesday wasn't really a piece of budgetary policy. Aside from raising the debt ceiling, cutting loans to grad students and capping the budgets of certain programs (like disaster relief), it didn't do anything to affect the debt. What the Budget Control Act of 2011 represents, rather, is the rulebook for an entirely new game. A special joint Congressional committee will meet in November and attempt to agree on $1.5 trillion in debt reduction. (The Congressional Budget Office will serve as the refs.) If they fail to come to an agreement, the consequences will not just be electoral or economic. This failure will also trip a "trigger" mechanism that will require automatic cuts in a whole host of programs dear to both parties.
"There's never been anything quite like the trigger," Justin Marlowe, a professor at the Evans School of Public Affairs, said in an email. "Congress hasn't done much on deficit reduction in the past few decades because most members have much to lose and little to gain if they take deficit reduction seriously. In that sense the trigger is a game-changer. It shifts the default from inaction to action."
Though it's not much used in politics, new media folks have a term for systems like this which embed artificial consequences or rewards in a real-world situation: gamification.
The most basic example of gamification is Foursquare. You use your smartphone to interact with the real world, and if you do it in a particular way, you get badges and honors. While these virtual rewards can sometimes end up having material value, the most surprising thing about gamification is how effective even those virtual rewards are at motivating behavior. Badges and trophies without any monetary value work as tiny ego boosts to goad our continued engagement with a task. That's why they're now everywhere: by setting small, achievable goals and offering virtual rewards for fulfilling them, an organization can get people to participate over long periods without explicitly requiring a long-term commitment. And by choosing which tasks are rewarded, participation can also be shaped toward particular ends. (That's why I played the Zen mode of Fruit Ninja three days in a row: I wanted that achievement.)
"The basic design of our system of government is very game-y," said Gabe Zichermann, co-author of the forthcoming Gamification by Design. "We run contests once every two years to decide who wins a coveted seat that gives you some voting power over others. It taps right into the model of incentive and reward at the heart of gamification design. People want status, access and power, and that's what the political system offers."
Thinking of democracy as "game-y" might seem disrespectful. But without those rules—the rule of law—the only limits on sovereigns are the limits of their power. Democratic reforms like the Constitution placed artificial limits on an otherwise monarchical system in order to achieve more just outcomes; the whole point is to make players answerable to some outside power, to create human referees where before there was just God and the mob. Elections act as a threat, forcing our elected representatives to pursue particular goals or get kicked out of the game. Another element of game structure is our system of checks and balances, which shapes certain kinds of behaviors in the different branches. And all the rules Congress has established over the years in order to determine how laws get made and enforced (filibusters, committee assignments, rules of debate) offer incentives for certain behaviors and disincentives for certain other behaviors. To say that politics is a "game" is to impugn the system. But in a very real sense it's entirely accurate. Without the game, we would have only divine right.
At times, new rules for the political system have come from the public, rather than from the government itself. Through the use of state-level electoral mechanisms like referendums, initiatives and constitutional amendments, voters have instituted disincentives for raising taxes (by requiring a supermajority in state legislatures), legal prohibitions against running up deficits (by passing balanced-budget amendments) and even set up individual-level goads for lawmakers to conduct their budgetary business promptly by threatening to cut legislators' pay if the state budget isn't passed by a certain date.
However well intentioned these efforts, the results for the political system have generally been catastrophic. California's maze of amendments and initiatives have hamstrung the state from making budgetary decisions; the 1978-instituted property tax freeze alone has severely restricted revenue, which has essentially required cuts in social spending. Meanwhile, balanced-budget amendments, which exist in 49 states, have prevented legislatures from preserving funding to social programs during economic droughts, requiring them to go to the federal government for help (which increases the burden on taxpayers nationally). It's no accident that these initiatives are often sponsored by conservative activist groups or independently wealthy individuals. The aim isn't to make government run better—it's to prevent government from running.
The federal government has also, at times, taken active steps to put mechanical limits on its ability to function. This generally hasn't gone well. As Marlowe notes, "Most legislatures, especially Congress, have a hard time pre-committing themselves to future action." The 1985 Graham-Rudman-Hollings Balanced-Budget Act set up a similar system to the debt committee’s trigger, but as the Times noted in an editorial on Wednesday, "Lawmakers used tricks and loopholes to get around them."
In 1990, federal lawmakers tried to institute a system called Pay-As-You-Go (PAYGO) in which any new spending would have to be paid for by corresponding cuts or revenue raises, and failure to do so would result in, again, mandatory cuts. In practice, however, it never worked out. The high level of tax revenue resulting from the tech and housing booms put few limits on what could be spent without incurring a deficit, and again, Congress used creative accounting rules to achieve technical compliance. As the Congressional Budget Office put it, “To comply with the letter of the law while boosting discretionary spending above the [legal] limits, lawmakers used a number of approaches” such as paying for things in other years, delaying payments, or designating certain items as “emergency” costs which were thus exempt from PAYGO rules. The act authorizing PAYGO, the Budget Enforcement Act, was quietly allowed to expire in 2002 to make way for the deficit-creating Bush tax cuts of 2003. While Democrats in Congress re-instituted the rules in 2007, they were broken in 2009 so that the stimulus package could go through.
You can even find an example of this rule-bending in the current bill (pdf). On pages 25 and 26, the "paygo scorecard" is adjusted so that the balance of current spending and revenue is "0 (zero)," which would indicate a perfectly balanced budget. Of course, we don’t have a perfectly balanced budget; we are still very much in deficit. So why would Congress do that? Well, since the debt ceiling compromise does institute some cuts in spending, according to PAYGO rules Congress would then be free to create new programs or tax cuts equal to the amount we just reduced the deficit by. But since that runs counter to the entire purpose of the debt ceiling compromise, the bill tells the people keeping score to reset the status quo. In this case, the rules aren't doing anything to reduce the deficit; they only make it temporarily harder to increase the deficit to a higher amount. In game terms, this is equivalent to changing the rules halfway through. It’s an obvious rule patch done to avoid gameplay derailment. Which isn't to say that it shouldn't have been done. A real need for just such rule-altering is why gamification is so problematic for policymaking: it's hard to justify sticking to artificial rules when the consequences would be so massively undesirable.
Despite the failure of previous gamification moves, hope endures for the trigger. After all, as Marlowe said, it's a new thing. But signs are not good.
In an email to me, Zichermann identified the design of the trigger as being notably problematic for achieving positive outcomes:
This is a negative-trigger design – very similar in concept to Aversion Therapy. In short, if you fail to do something in an allotted time, you will be punished. Good games rarely use this as a long-term strategy, but it can often be found as part of a short-term design. Most good games and gamification use positive reinforcement instead of punishment because it's been proven to be more effective.
Marlowe agreed, pointing out that the focus on short-term consequences offered little incentive for promoting long-term goals:
I think the "Super Committee" will have an acrimonious debate but will eventually find the required additional $1.5 trillion in deficit reduction. The question is whether that reduction comes from tangible policy changes that taxpayers can understand, or from budgeting and accounting gimmicks. If most or all comes from gimmicks the mechanism will have worked in the technical sense, but it will also feed the perception that taxpayers can have fiscal discipline but not have to live with its consequences. In that sense, the "trigger" will probably fail because it will likely focus attention on current taxing and spending, and not enough on the far more important question of how much government can we really afford?
The situation, then, is this: the original implementation of the political game offers certain incentives to elected officials. As Zicherman put it, "The system rewards them for acting in the short-term interest of getting re-elected." The trigger mechanism allows individual politicians to escape those consequences by putting responsibility for the details of the deal on the joint committee. But by so doing, it also offers an incentive to solve the current problem without looking to the longer-term issues that are the real problem. Meanwhile, the old rules never get rescinded, and just keep piling up, creating more and more restrictions on policymakers’ ability to act.
That's the thing about games: they're only as good as the rules allow them to be. And it's hard to introduce new rules into a game that's already ongoing. Instead of starting from behind the veil of ignorance, players know what position they already hold in the game. Thus, instead of striving for an abstract notion of fairness, they’re likely to only support new rules that benefit them in some way. And that’s where we are in politics right now. Faced with a game that seems to be dysfunctional, it’s understandable that we might want to change the rules (or even make up a new game entirely). That might work. But if history is any guide, it’s unlikely that such revisions will have their intended effect.
Mike Barthel has a Tumblr.
Photo by Nan Palmero.