Saturday, April 5, 2008

The (Im)Balancing Game

One image I get when thinking about the current state of American politics goes like this:

Have you ever participated in one of those high-ropes (low-ropes for me) team building exercises? Often one of the elements is a tilting platform that is - as the engineers would describe it - free to move in two axes which is to say that it is like the whole platform is balanced on a pinpoint in the center. The object of the exercise is to get two teams of people (who to this point have been competing with each other) up on the platform from opposite sides without having the table destabilize to the point that it clunks down on one side.

With no one on the platform, it's in balance. If just one person tries to get on - clunk it goes. The winning approach is to have one person from each team step up at the same time and walk to the middle. Eventually you can get everyone up on the platform and it stays in balance.

So it is in America. The two most powerful parties are so equal in strength that a victory can be determined by a few ambiguous ballots cast in Florida.

It doesn't take the teams long to figure out that while the platform can be balanced with everyone in the middle, it can also be balanced with everyone at the edges. In fact, there are an infinite number of configurations that will balance the platform. But everyone has to work together. The movement of any player on either side requires a compensating movement by someone else.

Then they notice that if the goal is to avoid the clunk, and not necessarily to keep the platform level, the platform can in fact be tilted a little in one direction or another.

Now imagine that there is a constant flow of little balls being fed right to the center of the platform, and the object of the game becomes for each team to collect the most balls possible without touching them - ie by making them roll to their side of the platform. We keep the rule that if the platform clunks, the game is over for everyone and no one wins anything.

The two teams now begin to jostle in order to shift from a state of equilibrium to one where little tilts can be introduced to cause the balls to roll to one side or the other. Those advantages last only a brief period before the other side reacts and shifts the tilt back to their favor.

The trouble is that when the object of the game shifts from balance to imbalance, the frequency and magnitude of the forces applied to cause and prevent these transient tilts become more aggressive. The platform becomes more and more unstable, with large numbers of balls flowing from one side to the other.

Inevitably, there is finally one oscillation that's too great and the table clunks. Or one team sees that it's being outplayed and clunks the table on purpose.

Those little balls are power and money. The politicians of the two parties - who are the only folks up on the platform - spend all their time trying to figure out how to tilt the platform in their favor without blowing up the game. The rest of us are standing around the perimeter of the platform hoping a few balls fall off the platform in our direction.

I fear we've reached the point in the game where the oscillations are so great that a clunk is imminent.

Maybe it's time for the game to change. For one thing, the people up on the platform are no longer just the politicians - it now includes the lobbyists. The lobbyists don't care so much which side wins as long as a lot of balls flow into their own buckets.

Then there is the judicial system. They're not supposed to worry about who gets the balls, only that that the game is being played fairly. But they've decided that to acomplish that, they need to get up on the platform as well, instead of judging only from the sidelines.

Such games have been played for centuries. Most of the time, the people don't care as long as they get enough balls to live a decent life.

But every once in a while, the people say 'Enough' and throw everyone off the platform. The question is what will rise in its place?