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The Marshmallows-in-the-Tea Effect.

A yellowish cartoon teacup containing tea and marshmallows sits atop an abstract background.

If you don’t have marshmallows in your tea today, tomorrow you may have none.

In politics, much of the discourse and legal wrangling arises from alternate realities of what could happen. Slippery slopes are one form among many, where the claustrophobia of the many possible futures leads otherwise reasonable (if conniving) people and organizations to make bad law and bad claims.

There is probably a better term for this, but being ignorant I made my own. Call it the marshmallows-in-the-tea effect. Your sister and you, feeling the cold of winter, decide to make some warm beverages. You elect for cocoa and she’s having tea. But when serving time comes around, she demands half of the marshmallows. “In tea?!” you ask her. But she insists, and even though it ruins the tea, she plops her marshmallows in there.

Your sister, bless her heart, doesn’t want marshmallows in her tea, but she fears that if she willingly gives up her ration of marshmallows today, she might not be able to claim them in the future.

It seems that about half the stupid positions taken by organizations can be traced back to this FOMO-related reaction. It’s better to take a tax cut and not need it than need one and not be able to take it, the agent for the rich person believes. The Office of Legal Counsel readily argues for executive supremacy even when it weakens the design of the Constitution. Business lobbies and Republicans alike fearmonger over the slightest and most reasonable changes to law, to policy, and to regulation, by playing up fears that it’s not just a slippery slope, but an express elevator to hell.

The underlying problem that gives rise to the practice is insecurity. If an organization feels like they will get a fair shake in the long run, they won’t need to raise bad-faith defenses to protect their turf, because they know if a change overreaches, it will be swiftly corrected. It is only when the systems at play become so unwieldy and strangled by factions that these actors feel they must resort to protecting even the tiniest authorities or theoretical powers they hold.

For example: CNN: Erica Orden: 8 June 2021: “Why the Biden Justice Department wants to help Donald Trump fight a defamation lawsuit”. It’s obvious that the presidency does not empower defamation. But the Justice Department and the executive want to burn no bridge, even a bridge to nowhere. The idea is that at some future battle for Middle Earth, this supposed authority could be all that stops Sauron’s push to reconquer the lands of men. Yawn.

There is another side of the marshmallows-in-the-tea, which is in our own lives. What small changes or different ways of thinking or acting do we resist out of fear it will change you too much? We all have insecurities in our lives and in our minds, the things that bug us. And our minds have the marshmallow-in-the-tea defense mechanism in place to keep us from moving too quickly in any direction, only to find our lives completely destabilized.

But we, like the institutions and politicians, must be careful not to drink tea with marshmallows when we could simply choose not to.

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