Saturday, October 19, 2013

Congressman Stutzman and the "rational actor" model

Does anyone really take the so-called "rational actor" model seriously (except, perhaps, in a form so hedged and non-committal as to render it vacuously tautological)?

That question often occurs to me.  (For example, it comes to mind whenever someone confidently, but implausibly, predicts what some foreign government definitely will or won't do because its leaders are allegedly "rational actors"—a description which, even if it happened to be true, would tell us nothing substantive.)

The latest item that provoked this question in my mind was a revealing statement by US Representative Marlin Stutzman (Republican of Indiana) on October 2, two days into the recently-ended crisis over the government shutdown and the debt ceiling
As the second day of the federal shutdown comes to an end, hardline elements within the Republican Party have made it clear that they will not budge until their demands are met. But what exactly are their demands? Republican House member Marlin Stutzman, for one, has no idea.

“We’re not going to be disrespected,” said Congressman Stutzman during an interview with the Washington Examiner on Tuesday.  “We have to get something out of this. And I don’t know what that even is.”
If Congressman Stutzman were just an isolated loon, this would be an amusing but not very significant incident.  We all say silly things sometimes.  Unfortunately, though Congressman Stutzman may well be a loon (this is the first time I've ever heard of him, so I can't say for sure one way or another), he is definitely not isolated.  On the contrary, as this Time Magazine report suggested, his outburst expressed a more broadly held world-view, motivating a significant subculture in American society and politics, that has real and damaging consequences for our political system.

The practical implications of this outlook for the pathologies of US politics should be clear enough.  As for their conceptual and theoretical implications for social inquiry and explanation ... well, if those need to be spelled out, then I'm not sure it's worth the trouble.

Yours for reality-based discourse,
Jeff Weintraub