Nuclear strategists know how dangerous the debt ceiling fight is

Disturbingly, the game can become more dangerous with each repetition. “In any long period of peace there may be a tendency for governments to become more intransigent as the thought of war becomes unreal,” Kahn wrote. He warned ominously that “this may be the case especially if there is a background of experiences in which those who stood firm did well, while those who were ‘reasonable’ seemed to do poorly.”

Imagine that Schelling’s hostile mountaineers have played their game of alpine chicken many times. Perhaps they have attracted an audience that cheers the climber who takes risks and mocks the one whose resolve falters. After enough repeated games, neither the spectators nor the climbers take the possibility of falling seriously. Some observers even begin to doubt that a fall can occur, making arguments that the climbers are too “rational” to allow it, or that a fall would not actually be catastrophic. Chastened by the boos of the crowd, the climbers grow inured to the danger and take larger risks. Inevitably, at some point one of them slips, dragging both of them into the abyss.

The regular brinkmanship in Congress over the debt ceiling appears to have degenerated into the kind of repeated game of chicken that Kahn warned us about. The more times the crisis is repeated, the less each occurrence seems like a crisis, because none has yet resulted in a catastrophe. Politicians are encouraged by experience to grow more and more inflexible and take harder positions the next time.