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You are debating a point with a colleague. Your colleague is wrong but to prove they are wrong you have to use information you know but cannot share. So, you leave things unsaid. Of course, someone who does not know the facts would also leave things unsaid by definition.

The listener knows that silence either conveys the fact that something is known but cannot be said or that nothing is known. Their inference takes the fact that you might know something but cannot say it into account. They should give you the benefit of the doubt. The benefit depends on how likely you are to know things that cannot be said. Hence, if the person leaving things unsaid is senior to the listener, the listener might defer to the speaker. Hence, seniority leads to authority via the inference content from leaving things unsaid.

Forty-seven Republican Senators signed a letter to the Iranian leadership claiming that any nuclear non-proliferation treaty signed by President Obama could be vacated at the stroke of a pen by the next President. What is the impact of their tactic on the probability of the deal being signed?

There are many effects but here are four key ones:

1. The Iranians now get further confirmation that President Bush III will be tougher than President Obama. The deal on the table is the best they are going to get. This makes them more likely to sign.

2. Democrats who are skeptical of the deal with now rally round the President, as they did after the surprise Netanyahu speech. This makes a deal more likely.

3. The Iranians now get further confirmation that the deal may fall apart under next administration. This makes it easier for them to renege in the future if circumstances dictate – they can more credibly blame the U.S. for being untrustworthy. Their citizens will not blame them if they exit the agreement as the Iranian leadership can more credibly blame the U.S.

Russia and China can trade with Iran with less international condemnation as the U.S. can be more credibly faulted for the deal falling apart. This makes a deal more likely.

4. The “no deal” option just got better too for reasons outlined in 3. Iran can blame the U.S. for not agreeing to the treaty and try to persuade Russia etc to break sanctions. This makes “no deal” more attractive relative to “deal” and makes the deal less likely. It could also mean that the deal the Iranians now get is improved to reflect their better outside option. If the deal is already better than even the improved outside option, the improvement will have little effect on the chance of a deal.

So, unfortunately, the net effect of the letter on the probability of an agreement is ambiguous. But even if the letter makes a deal less likely, it makes it less likely by making Iran stronger.

Paul Krugman has an op-ed today where he argues Amazon is abusing its power:

Which brings us back to the key question. Don’t tell me that Amazon is giving consumers what they want, or that it has earned its position. What matters is whether it has too much power, and is abusing that power. Well, it does, and it is.

Amazon is attempting to negotiate lower prices from the publisher Hachette and is slowing down sales of Hachette books on amazon.com in an attempt to force their hand. This is the main evidence.

But this kind of bargaining leads to lower prices for consumers not higher. Hence, from the perspective of welfare it is actually good. It is akin to the argument for reducing double marginalization via vertical integration. Double marginalization occurs because the primary producer (here Hachette) and the retailer (here Amazon) BOTH add a margin on to costs to maximize profits. Welfare would be higher and prices lower if they vertically integrated so some externalities are internalized. In fact, here is Krugman in 2000 explaining why breaking up Microsoft into Windows and Office is a bad idea:

In the last few days the Justice Department, outraged by the lack of contrition among Microsoft executives, has apparently decided to seek a ”horizontal” breakup of the software company — that is, to split it into one company that sells the Windows operating system (the upstream castle) and another that sells Microsoft Office and other applications (the downstream castle)….

even if you believe that Bill Gates has broken the law, you don’t want to impose a punishment that hurts the general public. And even strong critics of Microsoft have worried that a horizontal breakup would have a perverse effect: the now ”naked” operating-system company would abandon its traditional pricing restraint and use its still formidable monopoly power to charge much more. And at the same time applications software that now comes free would also start to carry hefty price tags.

As we know from ECON 101, integration is just one way to internalize externalities. Another would be for the retailer to negotiate lower prices from the producer so they are closer to production costs. Another would be for the producer to force the retailer to charge a lower margin. As both sides try to negotiate such deals which are good for them but bad for the other side, there is a war of attrition as we see currently. Sure Amazon’s tactics may be a bit crude but this is the typical kind of negotiation that lowers input costs and eventually prices. Hachette’s tactics are harder to observe but I would bet they are not so different.

(Update Oct 21: Spelled out some more details!)

You (the sender) would like someone (the responder) to do you a favor, support some decision you propose or give you some resource you value.  You email the responder, asking him for help.  There is no reply.  Maybe he has an overactive Junk Mail filter or missed the email.  You email the responder again. No reply.  The first time round, you can tell yourself that maybe the responder just missed your request.  The second time, you realize the responder will not help you.  Saying Nothing is the same as saying “No”.

Why not just say No to begin with?  Initially, the responder hopes you do not send the second email.  Then, when the responder reverses roles and asks you for help, you will not hold an explicit No against him.  By the time the second email is sent and received, it is too late – at this point whether you respond or not, there is a “No” on the table and your relationship has taken a hit.  The sender will eventually learn that often no response means “No”.  Sending a second email, while clearing up the possibility the first non-response was an error, may lead to a worsening of the relationship between the two players.  So, the sender will weigh the consequences of the second email carefully and perhaps self-censor and never send it.

Then, Saying Nothing will certainly be better than Saying No for the responder and a communication norm is born.

Jeff’s Twitter Feed

  • In the democratic power vacuum republicans get to decide whom to empower by just picking whom to silence. 1 week ago
  • The three-way ecstasy of H20 at the moment they collectively become vapor. 1 month ago
  • "Off of" is the new "on" 1 month ago
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