Eleventh-hour negotiations aren't uncommon in Washington, D.C., but the most recent duel over the debt limit seems especially tense. Unless its debt ceiling is raised from its current $14.3 trillion, or its budget is miraculously balanced, the U.S. will default on its financial obligations on August 2, leading to a credit downgrade, delayed government payments and other serious economic troubles.Debt default is an outcome that's almost unanimously opposed, so the failure of decision-making feels especially frustrating. With such complex political gamesmanship at play, neuroscience and game theory may offer some insight into the stalemate, suggesting that a sense of moral superiority could be disrupting a natural tendency to cooperate.From an immediate political perspective, the primary cause of the standoff is that Republicans won't raise the debt ceiling without major spending cuts, and they're unwilling to accept any tax increases as part of a deal. Needless to say, this position is a nonstarter for negotiation with the Democrats, many of whom want to increase tax revenues to ease the degree of the draconian cuts. At some point, a mutual decision will be made, leading both parties either to claim at least partial victory or to pass the responsibility to someone else.Viewed with scientific detachment, whatever compromise eventually emerges will be a remarkable product of the complex neuronal calculus that goes into collectivedecision-making. Each brain in the House and Senate is trying to master an intricate game of strategy. Risk is being measured against payoff, stakes are being continually reassessed, and all of these calculations are updated fluidly as new information becomes available. Moreover, each congressional brain has to run a simulation of other brains to determine whether cooperation is likely—a feat with its own host of computational complexities.
Read the rest at Scientific American: The Neuroscience of the Debt Debate, or Why Cooperation Takes a Backseat to Mistrust