Voting, Board Game Theory, and That Guy

I’ve talked about “That Guy” in the past. In one of my most popular posts (written to Democrats and Republicans in the aftermath of the 2012 election), I cautioned against being “That Guy.”:

Finally, don’t–DON’T–decide to be That Guy. You know the one I’m talking about. The one who loses, and so decides he’s going to screw over everyone else playing the game as best he can. He doesn’t care if the entire game gets ruined. He will have his revenge! Because that guy? He’s kind of a tool, and nobody likes him. So don’t do that.

If you’ve played board games regularly, I almost guarantee you’ve played against That Guy. Chances are, you’ve even been That Guy a time or two. It happens when you become so fixated on the game that you lose sight of other things in life. Things like courtesy and basic human dignity. Instead, you feel like you’ve been wronged, and you will do EVERYTHING IN YOUR POWER (however limited it might be) to get revenge.

Captain Ahab was That Guy.

The Ukrainian in Seinfeld was That Guy in his most destructive form.

Last night, That Guy showed up to the school board meeting in force. (Well, for values of “force” smaller than 30 people.)

In a way, they planned to do the same thing the Democrats are currently trying to do in the Senate: use as many delaying techniques as possible to stop the Health Care Bill in its tracks. Except in the Senate, it’s a bunch of career politicians doing to each other the thing that career politicians do. In a school board meeting to set the budget, it’s regular town people being obnoxious to other regular town people.

It was clear early on what the plan was. The “No” side had gotten together ahead of time to plan out their approach. They would call for a written ballot on each and every vote. (Written ballots involve everyone in the room going up the ballot boxes and putting in a Yes or No slip of paper. They take quite a bit of time (maybe 5-10 minutes each vote).) They would make a motion to amend each article at least twice, first to reduce that article’s budget to the level it was last year, and then (if that amendment was voted down) to reduce it to half the asked-for increase (effectively splitting the difference from last year’s budget and the proposed budget.)

At the last meeting, it had been established that if 10% of the attendees wanted a written vote, then we would have a written vote. And so the “No” side used that knowledge to figure out how best to slow things down. If they could get enough of the “Yes” side to get tired of it all and go home, then maybe they’d could push through a budget they wanted, instead. (They were far from pleased when a motion was made after a while to change the number needed to call for a written vote to a simple majority (the Roberts Rules of Order standard).) But even more disheartening was the way they continually tried to label the “Yes” side, casting aspersions on their motivations. Once again, their arguments were pretty blatant:

  • People voting Yes are school shills. Teachers and employees who just show up to vote themselves raises. One person even went as far as to question whether the volunteers collecting ballots were manipulating the results, paid by the schools. Never mind the fact that it’s been repeatedly shown only residents are voting. If a teacher happens to live in the district, what is he or she supposed to do? Not vote? They pay taxes the same as the rest of the citizens.
  • People voting Yes are uncaring, ready and willing to turn old people out of their homes so that they can continue spending frivolously on the school budget. And yet the budget we were voting on last night represented a 0% increase to property taxes. “But what if state funding goes down next year?” they would ask. “Then we’re stuck with these higher budget figures.” To which I shake my head and throw my hands up. We just lived through the Great Recession. Budgets shrunk. The school board figured it out. Honestly, I would give this “think of the poor people” argument more merit if it were made across the board, at each meeting where local budgets were set. And yet just months ago when the town voted to raise budgets for town offices in significant areas, no one showed up to clamor for it not to increase. Instead, we have this group fixated on the school budget, trying to use any excuse they can to stop it from increasing.
  • People voting Yes are trying to illegally manipulate the system to get their way. Hello, Kettle? Pot calling here.

The “Yes” side was warned and threatened repeatedly last night. Told “you don’t want to kick the hornet nest, because you won’t like what comes out.” Called unreasonable because we weren’t willing to simply set the budget at the amount it was last year. (And never mind changes to student population, special education requirements, wear and tear on buildings, cost of living raises for employees, health care benefits changes, and the hundred other changes that happen in a year to any large organization.)

In the end, it took three hours to set the budget. Three hours where 115 of the 140 people in the room agreed with what they wanted. It’s a convoluted, dizzying process that I’m convinced hardly anyone in that room really understood. I think the process itself needs to change. Not because I want to ramrod through an agenda, but because there has to be a more streamlined way to get this done. 140 people spending three hours of time? That’s the equivalent of 420 hours of work. Imagine what we could get done if we all chose to spend that 420 hours on something actually useful, like building houses for the poor or cleaning up public parks or the school buildings? I don’t know what we’d have to do to change it, but I’m all for it. Last night was like playing Monopoly. And not the fun part, either. Not the part where you’re going around the board, trying to buy properties and negotiate deals. No, this was Monopoly where one person has gotten all the hotels, and it’s clear they’re going to win, but the loser has become That Guy, stating he’s going to stay in this until he’s 100% bankrupt. And so you roll the dice over and over and over and over, and everyone begins to wonder why in the world they thought this was a good idea in the first place.

Except That Guy. He’s pleased as punch he’s become such a pain in the rear. Because if he can’t win, he might as well feed off spite.

So in conclusion, I’ve given up on respecting some members of the “No” side. They showed their true colors, and those colors were disappointing to say the least. They became That Guy, and I’ve played too many board games to be taken in by That Guy. Once someone sinks to the level of That Guy, there’s no playing with them any more. They have lost all connection to reason. You might as well go to the Argument Clinic. You’d have a better shot at having a rational discussion.

What’s the solution? To be loud, vocal, respectful supporters of the school budget. To put up signs. Write editorials. Talk to neighbors. To stress a simple message: the budget is reasonable. Taxes are not increasing this year because of it. They didn’t increase last year. And to make sure the “No” side has no fodder to use against you. Don’t steal their signs. Don’t engage in petty arguments. Don’t call them names. Ignore them. Stick to your message.

When That Guy starts playing your game, you get rid of him with kindness. He’s trying to change the rules. To make it about feelings and frustration. Just keep rolling those dice, and keep on smiling. Once you start playing by his rules, everyone loses.

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