Every poker player, amateur or professional, has had this experience. For some reason or another – a distraction, an erroneous calculation, going on tilt, or something else – you’re suddenly pot committed. A disproportionate portion of your chips are in the pot, it’s a no-win situation, and the only chance of survival is to bluff your way out. If you fold you’ll be short-stacked, and if you call you’ll be all-in and probably lose.
Some players think the concept of pot commitment is just an excuse for making bad calls; others seem to wind up in that situation regularly.
Whatever the case, it’s a compelling metaphor for the way in which intellectuals and politicians – people with outsized influence – are often unwilling to admit or abandon discredited opinions or initiatives. The difference is that where a pot committed card player is often forced into a losing and sometimes humiliating position, wielders of influence (building upon the poker metaphor) nearly always have a number of outs they can exercise.
The ways in which they distance themselves from the consequences of their choices to maintain a perception of infallibility, additionally, is often disillusioning for those who observe it. And where the poker player bears direct and unavoidable personal responsibility for mistakes, public figures tend to slide onto the next issue, leaving the public holding the bag.
The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic – now clearly in remission in the U.S. – has offered many examples of this tendency. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s edict, which sent thousands of elderly patients from hospitals back to nursing homes, resulted in the deaths of thousands – perhaps over 10,000. Yet instead of an apology, he has sought to blame the current presidential administration. Further still, Cuomo just announced that he’ll be writing a book offering a “clear game plan” for battling the coronavirus.
Indeed: attempting to wrest control of a narrative – an endeavor which under any other circumstances would be viewed as attempting to mold reality itself – is one way in which public figures avoid being backed into a corner. Feigning thoughtfulness or humility is another. Shifting the conversation or communicating through functionaries are others. And when all else fails, there’s always the option of running away. Literally.
The problem is real in any political system but the United States in this pandemic has proven itself unusually afflicted with pot commitment. Other countries wrongly locked down their economies but then their leadership rolled back the lockdowns soon after, perhaps realizing their error, or responding to evidence of herd immunity, or in response to public pressure. But this stringency chart shows that the U.S. overall locked down and then flatlined. Our political leaders seem not to be able to read the data and act in ways that reverse their errors. They keep doubling down, even in the absence of evidence that the virus is pervasive, as it is not in whole regions of the country.
How does it happen? If first has to do with the intrinsic nature of the endeavor. In business, science, sports, and most other realms of human achievement, missteps are immediately evident; they force reassessment, restatements, and even apologies. An error in baseball, a botched experiment, or entrepreneurial failure tend to be readily apparent and directly attributable. In the world of ideas or policy, though, there are more opportunities to manipulate contexts or attribute blunders to misunderstandings. And not only is bad policy more easily swept under the proverbial rug than, say, a bankruptcy filing: the tribalism that now accompanies political discourse facilitates it. People are now more committed to being on the side perceived as being correct than that which is provably correct.
Incentives play a major role as well. People who are put in power – whether in public office or by their ability to influence millions of people with ideas – are not only inclined but in some sense obligated to maintain a facade of omniscience or invincibility. In particular, holders of elected office are, even beyond their personal issues, beholden to interest groups, lobbyists, staffers, and the party machine. Many, no doubt, are advised (as much as decide) to stonewall, change direction, or otherwise mislead in ways that would make most citizens cringe.
The inability, or unwillingness, to concede mistakes or reverse message is among the most pernicious informal institutions within the political realm, but it is in part a characteristic of the American public’s making. Yes, political intransigence is at work here – the sunk cost fallacy – but it is exacerbated by unquestioning deference to the dictates of officeholders or celebrity scientists. That, in turn, lays the foundation for consequence-free statecraft.
The degree to which figureheads lie, duck, or otherwise shirk the ramifications of their words or initiatives is a litmus test for the gravitas of their office. And so when a politician or another figure of authority lies, or changes their story without conceding previous error, it is important to remember that theirs is, ultimately, an edifice of assumed credibility. Honesty, unfortunately, would only erode it.
Perhaps replacing attorneys with poker players would improve the climate of strategic courage in our state houses and Washington, D.C.