The Agenda

The Buffett Buy-Off

Ezra Klein highlights a decision by Senate Democrats that all conservatives should applaud:

Well, we almost had the Buffett Buy-Off. Buffett, here, is Warren Buffett, the Omaha-based investor who prevailed on his state’s senior senator to insert a provision exempting existing derivatives contracts from the new collateral requirements. Sound complicated? All you need to know is that this language is worth $8 billion to Buffett, and Sen. Ben Nelson was happy to help him out.

The rest of the Democrats, however, were not so happy once they got wind of this deal, and they stripped it out of the bill. Nelson then voted with the Republicans to filibuster the motion to move to debate. “Has Nelson forgotten how the Cornhusker Kickback saga played out?” asksMatt Yglesias. “That it became a huge embarrassment for him personally, for his party, and for his state?”

Nice work, senators. Now I will go back to sharply criticizing you for recklessly endangering the country with your irresponsible spending.

But I do think that positive reinforcement has its place. I learned this from Amy Sutherland, who learned how to yield good behavior from her husband by observing exotic animal trainers.

Back in Maine, I began thanking Scott if he threw one dirty shirt into the hamper. If he threw in two, I’d kiss him. Meanwhile, I would step over any soiled clothes on the floor without one sharp word, though I did sometimes kick them under the bed. But as he basked in my appreciation, the piles became smaller.

I was using what trainers call “approximations,” rewarding the small steps toward learning a whole new behavior. You can’t expect a baboon to learn to flip on command in one session, just as you can’t expect an American husband to begin regularly picking up his dirty socks by praising him once for picking up a single sock. With the baboon you first reward a hop, then a bigger hop, then an even bigger hop. With Scott the husband, I began to praise every small act every time: if he drove just a mile an hour slower, tossed one pair of shorts into the hamper, or was on time for anything.

Am I comparing members of Congress to baboons? Let’s be serious. That would be an insult to baboons.

Reihan Salam is president of the Manhattan Institute and a contributing editor of National Review.

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