You remember that game where you ask your friends which of two unbearable acts they would rather endure? The more incomparably unspeakable the acts the more torturous it is to decide.  The game gets its irresistable charm from the way it tests our ability to decide beween alternatives we would never admit to being able to tolerate.

But that ability is the essence of compromise. You have your preferred policy but policy-making requires negotiation and your preferred policy just isn’t in the feasible set.  You’ve got to take stock of all the worst-best policies that your negotiating partners would agree to and decide which one is the least worst.

Admitting which one you would settle for is psychologically and strategically hard.  Because rhetorically it amounts to approval.  Your constituents will ask you how you possibly could have proposed that.  In the future your approval will tend to cement this compromise into place.  Bargaining frequently reaches impasse just because people have not had enough practice ranking alternatives that are far below their favorites.

That’s what I was thinking about when Courtney Conklin Knapp (guest-blogging this week for Megan Mcardle) wrote about the new death-images to be printed on cigarette packs.  The images are revolting. It seems wrong in some basic way to be forcing people to look at those.  But in practice we are faced with two choices.

Suppose you had a choice between only two policies: A) grotesque pictures or B) increased per-pack taxes calculated to generate exactly the same reduction in demand. Which do you prefer?

I think I favor the pictures.  But look at the 220 comments to Courtney’s post where she asked her readers to choose.  They are the roots of gridlock text-onified.  Almost nobody actually answers the question.  Its like when your friend forgets the rules of the game. You have to pick one.