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Buridan’s Ass and the Debt Limit

Jonathan B. Wight

A hundred years ago, more or less, Europe was plagued with intransigent leaders who huffed and bluffed in a Prisoner's Dilemma game that imploded into World War I. Everyone saw it coming, and no one could stop it. Each leader's actions led inexorably to war… and societies were pulled like gravity into it, although every rational mind would have wished otherwise.

Similarly, we are pulled into a vortex of a debt crisis by a similar Prisoner Dilemma: each side hopes to push the other side into compromise, while being hard core itself. But if both sides are hard core, the outcome is a default, which is much worse for each party (and the country) than if they moved to compromise in the center.

Political intransigence—stubborn, inflexible, obdurate, intractableis not principled when "my way or the highway" leads to another financial meltdown.

A donkey was placed between two equidistant piles of hay. The ass could not distinguish between them and hence could not act: he died of hunger.

"Do not let the best be the enemy of the good," Voltaire allegedly wrote. Yet our society is like Buridan's ass, unable to accept a good solution, even if not the best. What is to become of us?


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