How Congress is Like a Crack Addict’s Brain

We seem to be having a hard time keeping it together lately. Americans are more overweight, more addicted, and more indebted than ever. Congress, meanwhile, is becoming ever more dysfunctional, seemingly unable to come to grips with spiraling deficits.

These two levels of dysfunction – personal and collective – surely must be a coincidence, right? After all, the give-and-take of representative democracy is a completely different process from the infinitely complex tangle of neurons and synapses that underlie individual decision making. But if one addiction researcher’s groundbreaking ideas are correct, then governments’ plans tend to fall apart for the very same reason that our individual attempts at self-control do.

Basically, Congress operates a lot like an addict’s brain.

To understand why, let’s look at an ice cream cone. It’s delicious, creamy, oozing chocolately goodness. How could you ever say no to something like that? Well, the problem is that while ice cream cones are nice, so are other things, like not getting fat. So as we walk down the sidewalk through the mouth-watering aromas wafting out of Ben & Jerry’s, we somehow have to balance these conflicting desires. Some psychologists, notably Roy Baumeister at Florida State University, argue that willpower is a muscle, and that by flexing it we can consciously choose to resist the urge to eat the delicious ice-cream cone in favor of a more long-term goal of staying slim.

George Ainslie, a research psychiatrist and professor of economics, takes a different view. He argues that there is no central governor in the brain that decides to prioritize one goal over another. Instead, he proposes that our heads are teeming with dozens of autonomous agents or “interests,” each of which is constantly struggling to see its choice implemented. The one that wins is the one whose goal seems most compelling at the time. Something that’s very rewarding (like being thin) but far away can lose out to something that’s only mildly rewarding (eating ice cream) but immediately available.

No wonder people tend to eat too much tasty but unhealthy food. But what’s really interesting is why they sometimes don’t. Ainslie suggests that we don’t just compare, say, eating ice cream right now with being thin a year from now. We compare eating ice cream now with the sum total of every day of being thin from now until we die. Seen in that light, the goal of being thin isn’t just big, it’s enormous.

But the key is that at a subconscious level, your brain must trust itself. That is to say, the agents that are competing in our decision-making process right now have to believe that the agents operating tomorrow will also be able to take the long-term view. Your brain has to earnestly believe that it will maintain this self-control agenda essentially forever. If it thinks that tomorrow it will fail, the whole process will break down. You’ll eat the ice cream—not just today, but every day. And you’ll be fat.

And this is where personal self-control relates to the behavior of the American Congress. Just like our subconscious brain, Congress is teeming with autonomous parties all shouting “I want! I want!” (Well, not out loud). The easiest thing to do would be to give in to all those immediate urges: a shiny new Navy base for Maine, a research facility for Texas, a prescription drug bill for the pharmaceutical lobby, and so on. But, like our brains, Congress has long-term goals, as well. Like not bankrupting the country down the road.

Of course, as with individuals, the short term (drug bill!) is much more immediately rewarding than the long-term (balanced budget) goal. And there’s no reason for legislators to deny themselves today if they know that the next session of Congress is likely going to through their prudence out the window and turn on the spending faucet to full blast anyway. Just as within the individual brain, it becomes impossible for Congress to exert willpower if it doesn’t trust its future self.

This problem has been inherent in Congress from the day it was first established, but in the past senators and congressman seem to have had a degree of trust in their colleagues. Lately, not so much. Congress’s ability to commit to long-term solvency has become so lacking that earlier this year the government came very close to defaulting. Like an addict, when the institution has no faith in itself, the exercise of willpower becomes impossible.

What, then, to do? Well, Congress can do just what many people facing a willpower crisis do: make a pre-commitment. This psychological strategy is also called “binding,” after the episode in the Iliad in which Ulysses asks his crew to tie himself to the mast of their ship so that he doesn’t succumb to the otherwise irresistible, fatal lure of the Sirens’ song. He knows he won’t be able to trust his future self, so before temptation presents itself he makes sure that he won’t be able to give in.

More than 2000 years later, precommitment is still an incredibly effective way to avoid all sorts of temptation. For instance, if you worry your spending habits will prevent you from saving any money, you can have your bank set aside a chunk of each paycheck. If you know you’re likely to hit the “snooze” button when your alarm goes off at 6am, you can set up your alarm clock on the far side of the room.

Congress enacted a somewhat convoluted version of binding as a way to extricate itself from the seemingly intractable debt-ceiling negotiations this past July. The Republicans demanded trillions of dollars of budget cuts; the Democrats countered with a lesser amount. Unable to meet halfway, the two sides managed to agree to kick the can down the road. They voted to establish a “super committee” with members from both sides which would have to agree on a workable budget plan by the end of the year. If the super committee fails, then the plan stipulates that horribly painful budget cuts will automatically go into effect, and presumably everyone will feel miserable and chastened.

Will Congress’ clever plan work? Well, the thing about binding strategies is that they only really work if the precommitment is really, actually, binding. If Ulysses can just reach around behind him and untie the ropes holding to the mast, the plan is going to fail.

This is where addicts often run afoul. The urge to consume can be so overwhelming that the desperate user manages to slip out of even the most powerful bonds. No money to buy drugs with?  That’s normally a deal-breaker, but not if you’re willing to turn a trick, rob a liquor store, or sell your parent’s furniture.

In the case of Congress, it turns out that the binding in the super committee plan isn’t as solid as it first seemed. In fact, according to the website Talking Points Memo John McCain has already said that if the super committee can’t reach an agreement, Congress can simply repeal the plan:

“If there’s a failure on the part of the super committee, we will be amongst the first on the floor to nullify that provision,” McCain said. “Congress is not bound by this — it’s something we passed; we can reverse it.”

He’s got a good point. Barring the passage of a constitutional amendment, Congress can do whatever it wants. It’s the supreme law of the land. No one can stop it from doing anything it wants. Binding is all but impossible.

Unfortunately, everyone in Congress is surely well aware of this fact. And whether you’re an addict or a branch of government, once you know how easy it will be to get around your pre-commitment, the game is over.

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