Cliff After Cliff

By CHARLES M. BLOW, New York Times, January 2, 2013

We have a deal. But please hold your applause, indefinitely.

We momentarily went over the fiscal cliff but clawed our way back up the rock face. Unfortunately, we are most likely in store for a never-ending series of cliffs for our economy, our government and indeed our country. Soon we’ll have to deal with the sequester, a debt-ceiling extension and possibly a budget, all of which hold the specter of revisiting the unresolvable conflicts and intransigence of the fiscal cliff. Imagine an M. C. Escher drawing of cliffs.

Be clear: there is no reason to celebrate. This is a mournful moment. We — and by we I mean Congress, and by Congress I mean the Republicans in Congress have again demonstrated just how broken and paralyzed our government has become, how beholden to hostage-takers, how vulnerable to extremism.

A fiscal cliff deal was cut at the last possible minute, covering a minimal number of issues. It was far from perfect and barely palatable. It was a compromise, and compromises are inherently imperfect. No one likes the whole of it, but they balance the bad parts against the good and see beyond dissension.

As the fiscal cliff votes came down to the wire, many repeated the aphorism: don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. But sadly, we are beyond even that. Now the perfunctory has become the victim of the grueling.

The American people suffered through another moment of manufactured suspense brought on by political malpractice. There was no grand bargain. There was only a begrudging acquiescence.

Not only is the era of grand bargains “over,” as Jennifer Steinhauer wrote in The Times on Tuesday, I believe that the era of basic governance is screeching to a halt.

As Steinhauer pointed out in September:

“The 112th Congress is set to enter the Congressional record books as the least productive body in a generation, passing a mere 173 public laws as of last month. That was well below the 906 enacted from January 1947 through December 1948 by the body President Harry S. Truman referred to as the ‘do-nothing’ Congress, and far fewer than even a single session of many prior Congresses.”

That’s an abominable shame. The one function of a lawmaker is to make laws. They can no longer seem to do that in any meaningful way.

It is no wonder that Gallup finds Congress’s approval rating stuck in the teens.

We have moved from a type of governance where the art of the compromise was invaluable to one where adherence to ridiculous pledges is inviolable. (By approving this fiscal cliff deal, many Republicans voted to broadly raise taxes for the first time in decades and many are still grousing about it.)

The change has taken place primarily among Republicans, who have struggled to balance the responsibilities and prerogatives of minority-party status with the anxiety of losing their long-held power at the expense of the growing influence of minority and historically marginalized constituencies like women and gays.

Smaller federal government! Out-of-control federal spending! States’ rights! Defense of Marriage! Defund Planned Parenthood! There is an individual argument (merit not withstanding) to be made about each of these issues in its own right. But only a person who is willfully blind or hopelessly ignorant would not acknowledge the common thread that runs through them: the fear of a future in which income, wealth and cultural inequalities dissipate and traditional power structures dissolve.

The country’s debt and solvency are real and legitimate concerns, but the true crux of the friction lies in the implicit arguments about the cause of our troubles. It is the tired and worn takers vs. makers argument just slathered in lipstick — Resistance Red, I suppose.

And since some of these Republicans are from safely gerrymandered districts, they have little to lose and something to gain by holding the line even if it continually pushes the country to the brink.

House Republicans like to say that Americans voted for a divided government and this gridlock is what becomes it. But that’s not entirely correct. As The Economist pointed out in November:

“The Democrats won 50.6% of the votes for president, to 47.8% for the Republicans; 53.6% of the votes for the Senate, to 42.9% for the Republicans; and… 49% of the votes for the House, to 48.2% for the Republicans (some ballots are still being counted). That’s not a vote for divided government. It’s a clean sweep.”

Republicans control the House in part because of the geography of ideology — cities tend to have high concentrations of Democrats and rural areas have high concentrations of Republicans — and because of the way district lines were redrawn, in many cases by Republican-led state legislatures.

So we will be soon be pushed back into a state of panic because Republican members of Congress demand a state of paralysis.

We are stuck with this reckless, whining and ultimately dangerous gaggle of wounded spirits. As many people can attest, an animal is often at its most dangerous when it’s sick, wounded or afraid. Brace yourselves.

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/01/03/opinion/blow-cliff-after-cliff.html?nl=todaysheadlines&emc=edit_th_20130103

Moral values and the fiscal cliff

By Jonathan Haidt and Hal Movius, Washington Post, November 27, 2012

Excerpt

President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner …have to reach a deal themselves, and then convince majorities in the House and Senate to go along…What can they do to improve their odds of beating the clock? Moral psychology can help.

Human beings are “super-cooperators,” the only species on the planet that can form cohesive teams out of non-siblings. Part of our evolved mental toolkit for teamwork is our ability to make something sacred… enhance their cohesiveness by generating heroes, taboos and pledges to uphold certain ideals or commitments.

But the psychology of sacredness makes it harder for negotiators to execute tradeoffs in a utilitarian way. When the Republican presidential candidates all said they would walk away from a deal that offered 10 dollars of spending cuts for each dollar of tax increases, they revealed that tax increases had become a form of sacrilege for the Republican Party—though the recent moves by several Republicans to disavow Grover Norquist’s tax pledge suggest this might be changing.

Sharing moral commitments helps teams to function cohesively, but it also blinds them to reality. They select arguments and narratives that support their preferred policies while denying facts that threaten or contradict their commitments. They sometimes vote for symbolism over substance, even when it harms their material interests or long-term goals. High-stakes negotiations are hard enough, but when sacred values are in play, the odds of success go way down….

So what can our political leaders do to convince their supporters to accept a deal averting the fiscal cliff?

First, they should negotiate—and describe their progress—only in terms of overall packages of options across spending and revenues…

Second, they should jointly call for shared sacrifice…

It may seem counterintuitive, but our political leaders should avoid using the word “compromise” too often. When moral values are at stake, those who compromise may be seen as morally compromised. Compromise will be essential, but it would be more effective for each side to describe its determination to find common ground, and its flexibility and openness in finding novel ways to achieve its long-term goals.

Finally…each side can calm partisan passions by invoking the virtue of humility...

The agreement ultimately reached on the fiscal cliff will not be as exalted as the Constitution, but it can be presented to Congress and the nation as a test of whether we the people are still able, 225 years later, to secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.

Full text

The fiscal cliff negotiations remind us of the long-running game show “Beat the Clock.” Couples had to perform a stunt, such as tying their shoelaces together using only their left hands, before a large clock ticked down to zero. The host would often introduce a twist at the last minute, something like, “Oh, and one more thing, you have to do this while members of the audience throw tomatoes at you.”

President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner must do something far harder than tying their shoelaces together before the clock ticks down to January 1. They have to reach a deal themselves, and then convince majorities in the House and Senate to go along. Oh, and one more thing, they have to do this while being pilloried by their respective bases. What can they do to improve their odds of beating the clock? Moral psychology can help.

Human beings are “super-cooperators,” the only species on the planet that can form cohesive teams out of non-siblings. Part of our evolved mental toolkit for teamwork is our ability to make something sacred—a rock, a tree, a flag, a person or a principle—and then circle around it, literally or figuratively. It’s not just religions that do this. Sports teams, fraternities, political parties and nations at war all enhance their cohesiveness by generating heroes, taboos and pledges to uphold certain ideals or commitments.

But the psychology of sacredness makes it harder for negotiators to execute tradeoffs in a utilitarian way. When the Republican presidential candidates all said they would walk away from a deal that offered 10 dollars of spending cuts for each dollar of tax increases, they revealed that tax increases had become a form of sacrilege for the Republican Party—though the recent moves by several Republicans to disavow Grover Norquist’s tax pledge suggest this might be changing.

Sharing moral commitments helps teams to function cohesively, but it also blinds them to reality. They select arguments and narratives that support their preferred policies while denying facts that threaten or contradict their commitments. They sometimes vote for symbolism over substance, even when it harms their material interests or long-term goals. High-stakes negotiations are hard enough, but when sacred values are in play, the odds of success go way down. (Just ask the Israelis and Palestinians.)

So what can our political leaders do to convince their supporters to accept a deal averting the fiscal cliff?

First, they should negotiate—and describe their progress—only in terms of overall packages of options across spending and revenues. Taken alone, any single issue such as tax rates is likely to trigger diametrically opposed responses and invocations of moral duties. Yet taken together, each side can find specific moral victories. In this case, that could be reining in the growth of government, for Republicans, and making taxes more progressive, for Democrats.

Second, they should jointly call for shared sacrifice. When Winston Churchill became prime minister in 1940, he told Britons that he had nothing to offer except “blood, toil, tears and sweat.” In doing so he activated a powerful psychological mechanism that makes people willing to bear burdens and pay costs when the group’s survival is at stake, and when everyone is called on to pull together as a team.

If our leaders want to be statesmen rather than panderers, they need to do the same. Pledges to protect this or that group from all sacrifice are as counterproductive as pledges never to raise taxes. President Obama and Speaker Boehner should develop shared language to convey to the American people the severity of our problems and the need for all Americans to make some sacrifices.

They can also start using contingent agreements to break impasses. Each side has its own experts, facts and forecasts that yield different conclusions about, say, whether tax increases will slow growth. This invariably stalls policymaking before it even gets a real start. One way to break the stalemate is for negotiators to structure some of the key provisions in the form of “if…then…” statements. In the case of tax increases, an agreement might stipulate that if growth falls below a 2-percent rate for three consecutive quarters, certain revenue-increasing measures will be scaled back for a specified period.

It may seem counterintuitive, but our political leaders should avoid using the word “compromise” too often. When moral values are at stake, those who compromise may be seen as morally compromised. Compromise will be essential, but it would be more effective for each side to describe its determination to find common ground, and its flexibility and openness in finding novel ways to achieve its long-term goals.

Finally, when the clock has ticked down nearly to zero and an agreement is near, each side can calm partisan passions by invoking the virtue of humility. Benjamin Franklin weighed in on the last day of the constitutional convention with these words: “I cannot help expressing a wish that every member of the Convention who may still have objections to it, would with me, on this occasion doubt a little of his own infallibility, and to make manifest our unanimity, put his name to this instrument.”

The agreement ultimately reached on the fiscal cliff will not be as exalted as the Constitution, but it can be presented to Congress and the nation as a test of whether we the people are still able, 225 years later, to secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.

Jonathan Haidt is a professor of business ethics at the NYU-Stern School of Business, and is the author of The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion. Hal Movius is the president of Movius Consulting, and is the author of Built to Win: Creating a World-class Negotiating Organization . They are both contributors to CivilPolitics.org.

http://www.washingtonpost.com/national/on-leadership/moral-values-and-the-fiscal-cliff/2012/11/27/a7c0d46a-38be-11e2-8a97-363b0f9a0ab3_story.html?wpisrc=nl_headlines

How do you vote for compromise?

by E.J. Dionne Jr., The Washington Post, October 31, 2012

Excerpt

How do you vote for compromise? by E.J. Dionne Jr., The Washington Post, October 31, 2012

Here’s where we have arrived as a country: We are so polarized that even compromise has become a partisan issue.

As the 2012 campaign closes, bipartisanship and “working together” are more in vogue than ever because the few voters still up for grabs tend to be more moderate, less partisan and less ideological.

But beneath the last-minute embrace of comity lurks a central fact about American politics now: Democrats, a more moderate and diverse party, believe in compromise far more than Republicans do.

While polls find that six in 10 Democrats regard themselves as moderate or conservative, nearly three-quarters of Republicans say they are conservative. And tea-party Republicans, who loom so large in primaries, are especially averse to giving any ground.

Moreover, Democrats still have a positive view of government and regard trade-offs between taxes and spending as a normal part of governing. Republicans care most about reducing government’s size and in cutting taxes. They’re prepared to accept standoffs and crises to reach those goals…

Full text

Here’s where we have arrived as a country: We are so polarized that even compromise has become a partisan issue.

As the 2012 campaign closes, bipartisanship and “working together” are more in vogue than ever because the few voters still up for grabs tend to be more moderate, less partisan and less ideological.

But beneath the last-minute embrace of comity lurks a central fact about American politics now: Democrats, a more moderate and diverse party, believe in compromise far more than Republicans do.

While polls find that six in 10 Democrats regard themselves as moderate or conservative, nearly three-quarters of Republicans say they are conservative. And tea-party Republicans, who loom so large in primaries, are especially averse to giving any ground.

Moreover, Democrats still have a positive view of government and regard trade-offs between taxes and spending as a normal part of governing. Republicans care most about reducing government’s size and in cutting taxes. They’re prepared to accept standoffs and crises to reach those goals.

No Republican better summarized this sentiment than Indiana Senate candidate Richard Mourdock, who defeated moderately conservative Sen. Richard Lugar in a Republican primary and is now best known for his comments on God’s will and rape.

“What I’ve said about compromise and bipartisanship” Mourdock said on CNN last May, is that “I hope to build a conservative majority in the United States Senate so bipartisanship becomes Democrats joining Republicans to roll back the size of government, reduce the bureaucracy, lower taxes and get America moving again.” When it was noted that this didn’t sound like compromise, Mourdock replied: “Well, it is the definition of political effectiveness.”

The split on compromise itself is visible in many other contests this fall, and none more than in the Virginia Senate battle between Democrat Tim Kaine and Republican George Allen.

Kaine has made working across party lines a central theme of his campaign. Allen has put a lot of energy into linking Kaine to President Obama. He has also criticized Kaine for endorsing the compromise that helped avoid a crisis during last year’s debt-ceiling battle because of the defense cuts it contained. These would take effect only if Congress fails to reach — well, a compromise after the election.

Kaine argues that avoiding default was essential and that voters seem to agree with him. The latest Post poll found Kaine leading Allen by seven points while Obama leads inVirginia by four.

In his discussions with voters, Kaine said in an interview, “the three questions I get most are: How do we accelerate the economy? How do we fix the budget? And how do we find common ground? Of the three, the one that comes up the most is the third one.”

Even in audiences that are “100 percent Democrats,” Kaine added, “they respond viscerally and warmly to the idea of ‘Let’s find an MO to work together.’ ”

No surprise here, because polls show Democrats are consistently more pro-compromise. This partisan difference was especially visible — and consequential — during last year’s debt-ceiling fight. In April 2011, as the battle was taking shape, a Pew survey found that 69 percent of Democrats supported the idea of their own side making compromises. Among Republicans, by contrast, 50 percent preferred their side to “stand by their principles.” The anti-compromise number rose to 56 percent among conservative Republicans and to 68 percent among Republican or Republican-leaning independents who supported the tea party. Sympathy for compromise has risen since then, but the gap between the parties endures.

It’s true that politicians running in states dominated by the opposing party are, by necessity, less partisan. InMassachusetts, Republican Sen. Scott Brown, who is running behind Democrat and consumer advocate Elizabeth Warren, brags about votes he has cast with Democrats.

Two Democrats running strong races in Republican territory, Heidi Heitkamp inNorth Dakotaand Bob Kerrey inNebraska, play down party all they can. In one ad, Heitkamp pledges to “put partisanship aside and do what’s right for our country.” Kerrey closes his latest spot declaring that “we need to put country ahead of party.”

But their cases underscore why Democrats will remain the more pro-compromise party for some time: To hold their Senate majority, Democrats need to keep winning in smaller and rural states that lean Republican. Republicans almost everywhere — Brown is the exception — now live in fear of losing primaries to tea-party candidates such as Mourdock.

Thus is compromise on the ballot next week. But only one side seems genuinely interested in reaching it.

ejdionne@washpost.com

http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/ej-dionne-jr-how-do-you-vote-for-compromise/2012/10/31/4e9c6ef6-238f-11e2-8448-81b1ce7d6978_story.html?wpisrc=nl_headlines