STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
So, we're in the second week of the government shutdown, and just over a week from now, federal borrowing authority expires, making it possible the federal government could fail to pay many of its legal obligations that Congress previously approved. At the center of both issues is House Speaker John Boehner, who last week accused Democrats of letting the shutdown continue because Democrats felt they were winning.
REPRESENTATIVE JOHN BOEHNER: This isn't some damn game.
INSKEEP: In the next segment, we explore the possibility that what's happening in Washington is, in fact, a game - at least in the way that game theorists think about games. NPR's social science correspondent Shankar Vedantam comes by regularly to draw connections between social science research and the news. Hi, Shankar.
SHANKAR VEDANTAM, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.
INSKEEP: And I suppose we should define: When we talk about game theory - people say it's not a game, but actually, they theorize about very serious things, like war, these game theorists.
VEDANTAM: That's exactly right. I mean, for the thousands of people who are out of work right now, Steve, or the people who are depending on government services, of course, this is nothing like a game. And if the U.S. defaults on its debt obligations, there are going to be huge consequences. But the researchers who study game theory think about games differently. It's not about being playful. I spoke with Bethany Blackstone. She's a political scientist at the University of North Texas, and here's how she put it to me.
BETHANY BLACKSTONE: Using game theory doesn't, in any way, suggest the topics under consideration are frivolous. People make decisions based, in part, on what they expect other people to do. And so that's what game theory helps highlight, is the way that one person's decision can be conditioned by how they expect other people to act.
VEDANTAM: And Blackstone told me, Steve, that the strategic game of chicken best describes the current scenario in Washington.
INSKEEP: OK. You say the words strategic and chicken in the same sentence, which is making me skeptical. But you're talking about, I mean, people have seen this in old movies: two cars driving toward each other on a narrow road. Who's going to swerve first?
VEDANTAM: Right. So, games of chicken typically have a potentially catastrophic outcome. In this case right now, what's looming is the debt default. But it's useful to remember, Steve, there have actually been a couple of other games of chicken. You know, two years ago, Congress set up the threat of sequester. These were budget cuts that were so painful that they were considered unthinkable. And yet neither the Democrats nor the Republicans were willing to swerve, and the sequester went into effect. A couple of weeks ago, Republicans and Democrats were hurdling toward another game of chicken. This was a government shutdown. And, again, people said, look, it's unthinkable we'd let the government shut down over this. And yet we did. Now, each side is betting that the threat of a debt default is so unthinkable, that it's finally going to bring the other side to its senses.
INSKEEP: Which maybe explains why a lot of people are looking at this from the outside and thinking it's crazy.
VEDANTAM: You know, it's important to remember that the problem actually doesn't lie with the people in Washington. It actually lies with the game. You know, the game of chicken is a zero-sum game. If I win, you lose. If I lose, you win. And as a result, unreasonable behavior tends to be rewarded and reasonable behavior tends to be punished. So, in the classic game of chicken, what experts actually suggest is that the first thing you would do is to grab your own steering wheel and throw it out of the car, because you signal to your opponent, look, even if I wanted to swerve at this point, I wouldn't be able to do it. And Blackstone connects this idea with the current standoff in Washington.
BLACKSTONE: President Obama certainly has repeatedly said that he simply will not negotiate on the debt ceiling. And what he is attempting to do there, it seems, is strengthen his bargaining position by impressing upon Republicans and the public that he will not be the one to swerve.
INSKEEP: And Speaker John Boehner has done that same thing in different ways over the last several years, repeatedly signal: Listen, I'm a very reasonable guy, but I have a lot of people in my caucus that I can't bring along with me unless you give me a deal here, Mr. President.
VEDANTAM: That's exactly right. You know, Steve, I also spoke with Colin Camerer. He's a behavioral game theorist at Caltech. And he told me a couple of things that were interesting about the current standoff. The first thing is because the current standoff is between President Obama and the Republicans, the president might have the upper hand because he's one person. It's easier for the president to present an inflexible front than for the Republicans to do so. And in some ways, we've seen evidence of this. There have been divisions among the Republicans about how to respond to the president. Now, counterbalancing that is the fact that in the past, Obama has had some reputation for flexibility and compromise. And in chicken, it turns out, that, paradoxically, is a liability.
INSKEEP: And maybe that's part of the reason why we ended up in a game of chicken, is people that felt they could win that game.
VEDANTAM: That's right. You know, Camerer also looks at the human factors that go into the games of chicken, so people aren't just thinking about this strategically. Their feelings are coming into play - their anger, their sense of spite, their sense of revenge. If you're so angry with the other side that the only thing you care about is making sure that they lose, in a sense, you're not really playing a strategic game anymore. So we've heard such talk from both Obama and Republicans. If that's what's really going through their heads, it might well be that they've both taken their steering wheels and thrown them out of their cars.
INSKEEP: Shankar, thanks.
VEDANTAM: You're welcome, Steve.
INSKEEP: That's NPR's science correspondent Shankar Vedantam. You can drive straight at him on Twitter @HiddenBrain, or plunge toward this program @MorningEdition, @NPRInskeep, @NPRGreene. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.