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andrew steele

The current crisis in Ottawa has been compared to a game of chicken . There is actually an extensive literature in game theory in "chicken" and while this is not a true example, it still holds some lessons.

Game theory defines "chicken" or " hawk-dove" as a two-player game where both players would mildly prefer the other to yeild, but where neither yielding is the worst possible outcome.

The best illustration of Chicken was in the James Dean classic Rebel Without a Cause . Dean and another boy drive their cars off of a cliff, and the first one to jump out before the vehicles tumble off the precipice is the "chicken."

The cost of jumping first is real: shame. But it is also far more mild than the alternative: burning to death in gasoline filled wreckage. A reasonable person would leap from the car instantly. But would they, once they realize the other player is also reasonable and should jump early as well? The result is a stand off of rapidly escalating danger.

One of the strategies is to reduce ones own options. For instance, in the driving game of chicken where the cars head towards each other, the player can ostentaciously disengage the steering mechanism so he cannot swerve away. Then it is the other player who must swerve.

Unfortunately, options can also be reduced in such as way as to force a player into the disaster outcome. In Rebel Without a Cause, the second driver's jacket gets caught on the car and he cannot leap out before the car falls over the edge. His options were reduced as well, but in a way that forced him alone into the disaster; the only question is if poor James Dean would follow him to his death or leap first and be the chicken.

This last scenario illustrates the potential for outcomes that are lose-lose in the chicken scenario without being disasters for both sides.

The British liberal philosopher Bertrand Russell wrote at length about the game of chicken, comparing it to the brinksmanship of the cold war.

Since the nuclear stalemate became apparent, the Governments of East and West have adopted the policy which Mr. Dulles calls 'brinkmanship'. This is a policy adapted from a sport which, I am told, is practised by some youthful degenerates. This sport is called 'Chicken!'. It is played by choosing a long straight road with a white line down the middle and starting two very fast cars towards each other from opposite ends. Each car is expected to keep the wheels of one side on the white line. As they approach each other, mutual destruction becomes more and more imminent. If one of them swerves from the white line before the other, the other, as he passes, shouts 'Chicken!', and the one who has swerved becomes an object of contempt. As played by irresponsible boys, this game is considered decadent and immoral, though only the lives of the players are risked. But when the game is played by eminent statesmen, who risk not only their own lives but those of many hundreds of millions of human beings, it is thought on both sides that the statesmen on one side are displaying a high degree of wisdom and courage, and only the statesmen on the other side are reprehensible. This, of course, is absurd. Both are to blame for playing such an incredibly dangerous game. The game may be played without misfortune a few times, but sooner or later it will come to be felt that loss of face is more dreadful than nuclear annihilation. The moment will come when neither side can face the derisive cry of 'Chicken!' from the other side. When that moment is come, the statesmen of both sides will plunge the world into destruction.

While the world avoided the disaster scenario in the 40-year long game of chicken known as the Cold War, our parliamentarians might not be so lucky.

There are two reasons why.

First, this is a more complex game than simple chicken. There are four principle players, not just two. All three opposition leaders must vote down the estimates to force an election. Stephen Harper has to ignore Michael Ignatieff's demands to partially trigger his loss of confidence. That multi-dimensional game results in far more opportunities for miscommunication, with six one-one-one relationships involved, not just a single other player to worry about.

The more difficult question is the variable costs. In chicken, both players stand to face similar penalties for yielding and similar outcomes when no one yields (in the classic example, shame or crash.)

In the current crisis, the downsides are difficult to weigh because of the fog of an election. But they can be roughly calculated.

Reasonably, the Liberals can be expected to gain seats, probably between twenty and fifty, but possibly more. The most likely outcome of the election for the Liberals is a larger caucus, but short of holding enough seats to dislodge the Conservatives as the government. This is no disaster, as Michael Ignatieff's control of the party mechanisms and grassroots would probably mean a second election in his future, barring a catastrophe.

There is also the very real possibility of forming a government for the Liberals. Seat extrapolation from current public opinion data shows a good chance of the Liberals holding the plurality of seats. While Stephen Harper has shown himself flexible in interpreting constitutional convention, such a result did cause Paul Martin to resign as PM.

The drag on the Liberals is the knowledge that waiting increases their likelihood of forming government. Even if they sustain the government now, and suffer some mild short-term pain, they stand to enjoy major long-term gains as the public continues to grow more disquieted by the Harper administration.

For the NDP, the election almost certainly means a decline in the number of seats. The New Democrats are consistently polling below their showing in the last election, and their new members have not enjoyed a long enough time in office to gain much incumbency advantage. For Jack Layton, that outcome - along with general grumbling in the party - probably means his fourth election as leader would be his last. That outcome is more costly than Ignatieff's.

But the shame outcome for Layton is also higher. He made a huge deal out of Stephane Dion's votes to support the government in 2007 and 2008. Even abstaining on the estimates now could cost Layton heavily. In fact, Layton may calculate that the costs of capitulation are higher than the disaster of losing 10 to 20 MPs to resurgent Liberals in a party where lily-white principle can been seen as more important than actual result.

Gilles Duceppe also stands to lose seats, although he also does have the potential to make some inroads at the expense of the Conservatives. His party is also less prissy about making deals with the governing party than the NDP or Liberals, as the entire raison d'etre of the Bloc is extracting concessions.

The problem for Duceppe is Stephen Harper cannot be seen making a deal with him, after his "separatist coalition" rhetoric of last fall. Harper can only hope that the looming pension trigger for a number of Bloc MPs is enough of an incentive that the BQ decides to abstain without a deal in return.

The Conservatives stand to lose the most in an election. There is almost no scenario in which they gain more seats than they lose in an election now.

But what makes Harper hard to push around is his knowledge that an election now would be preferable to an election later. Recessions don't end smoothly and with a sudden burst of optimism, especially when the Americans look set to use inflation to get out of their doldrums. Things are only going to get uglier for Harper and an election that sees him still holding a plurality of seats still seems likely.

Harper might actually want an election now, even though it would see him lose as many as 30 MPs simply because any election that sees him stay as PM means he gets to stay as PM.

So what will happen?

Frankly, I think there is a very good chance of an election. The complexity of the game, and the inability of the parties to differentiate false signalling from real intention makes it almost impossible to see who is closest to the edge of the cliff and who has two feet out the door.

More importantly, the gap between the mild pain for blinking and the catastrophe for an election is not wide enough on Parliament Hill. There are upsides and downsides to both choices for all four parties, and in the machismo thunderdome of the Commons, wisdom is not in surplus.

And an election wouldn't be a bad thing.

This has been the least productive Parliament in memory. Other than creating a $50-billion deficit repaving a few highways, its accomplishments are nil. All four parties bear some blame for that, although primarily an intellectually stalled Conservative Party.

An election that held out the promise of real change would be preferable to the stalemate of bankrupt brinksmanship the nation has endured for the past five years.

Minority government has been tried and proven wanting. At a time of fierce global competition for resources, a financial collapse, severe recession, flu pandemic, and six score dead in Afghanistan, we spent the last two weeks yammering about lost binders and misplaced recorders. Seeking constant electoral advantage has completely overtaken the hard work of government, and Canadians can no longer afford their elected officials neglecting their duty.

Bring on an election. Falling over the cliff has to be better than this.