A Game of Chicken in Every Pundit's Pot

The game no one wants to play is the comparison everyone wants to make

This article is from the archive of our partner .

The cliche The metaphor began months ago, in that peaceful age when reporters still had to explain to their readers what the "debt ceiling" was and why newly elected Republicans might make it an issue. In December 30, 2010 article called, "Game of Chicken," The New Republic's Alexander C. Hart wrote: "This all adds up to an insane game of chicken. To win such a contest, one must credibly demonstrate a lunacy greater than that of one’s opponent. With more than 80 undisciplined freshmen in the House and an ascendant, bomb-throwing Tea Party wing, Republicans can deliver crazy. President Obama, on the other hand, may well be too reasonable to win at chicken." As negotiations play out, it has become the media's metaphor of the moment. In a June 1 post entitled "The Debt Ceiling Game of Chicken," Andrew Sullivan sounds the exact same notes: "Maybe Obama's strategy is to allow the GOP to become so identified with not raising the debt ceiling that if we default, the GOP will be far more clearly on the hook for the consequences ... I hope Obama and the Dems resist their partisan edge right now and endorse a Bowles-Simpson-style grand bargain before the worst happens."

Now, with the debt ceiling debate in its final week, the U.S. careening toward default, and the continued inability of either side to blink, pretty much everyone has taken to the metaphor. (See, for instance, the cartoon in today's Boston Globe. Or just search "game of chicken" on twitter. You'll see.)  The New Yorker's James Surowiecki gets behind it too in his article dated August 1: "In fact, by turning dealmaking into a game of chicken, the debt ceiling favors fanaticism. As the economist Thomas Schelling showed many years ago, “It does not always help to be, or to be believed to be, fully rational, coolheaded, and in control of oneself” when it comes to brinksmanship. It doesn’t, in short, help to be President Obama."

Where it's from The phrase is taken from the field of game theory, which in turn borrowed it from a "game" played by two reckless individuals in cars who drive toward each other head on. The first driver to swerve is the "chicken," subject to derision from the other. Game theory borrowed the phrase to describe any situation in which two actors compete and both would prefer to win rather than tie, prefer to tie rather than lose, and prefer to lose rather than crash. This means that if both players seek to optimize their outcome, they will wait for the other to lose, resulting in the worst-case scenario for both. The theory was famously applied to nuclear brinkmanship during the Cold War, and particularly the stand-off between Kennedy and Kruschev during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Fittingly, the media also applied the term to the debt negotiations between President Bill Clinton and then-speaker Gingrich.

Why it's catching on Well, we admit it is a really apt metaphor for the current situation. Both parties benefit most if the other one swerves. And if neither does so, the crash is almost certainly a "worst-case scenario" for more than just their political futures. Commenters seem to be drawing the metaphor in order to point out that, if we are to avoid default and the ensuing economic disaster, someone must swerve. Interestingly, even back in December when The New Republic first mentioned it, people seemed to be overwhelmingly pointing to President Obama to take a loss and be the chicken.

Why really? Maybe people just like metaphors that involve people driving really fast and cataclysmic events? Senator Harry Reid certainly does. In his mind, the cars don't even need to drive toward one another: "This isn't a game of chicken. This is a game of reality," Reid told reporters yesterday. "We're about to go over a cliff."

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.