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

We Need a Little Fear

By JONATHAN HAIDT, New York Times, November 7, 2012

Excerpt

THE voters have spoken. So, what now? How will our still divided government deal with our mounting threats and challenges? Shared fear can help.

A national election focuses our attention on a single level of competition — political party versus political party. Let’s call that “me and my brother against our cousin.” But after that, it’s time for our national team to come together to fight the many threats and enemies that confront us…Since the 1990s we’ve been stuck at one level — party versus party. Partisanship is not a bad thing. We need multiple teams to develop competing visions for voters to choose among. But when so many of our leaders can’t even occasionally place national interest before party interest, we’ve crossed over into hyperpartisanship. And that’s a very bad thing, because it amplifies other problems like the debt crisis, the absence of a rational immigration policy and our aging infrastructure.

We the people bear some of the blame for what’s happened in Congress, for we, too, have become more angrily partisan. So what can we do to pull ourselves up to that higher level? How can we unite not just with our brothers and sisters, but with our cousins?

One way is to focus on common threats, rather than on common groundIt’s only the threat of the stranger that brings the extended family together. When we focus only on the one asteroid that most frightens us, we feel anger at the partisans on the other side. We curse their blindness without recognizing our own. But if we can look up into the sky and see a whole fleet of asteroids heading for us, we lose our tunnel vision and experience a healthy form of panic. We’re in big trouble, and anyone who does that hyperpartisan stuff now should be ashamed — or kicked out of office. The day after Election Day is the day for all of us, and our siblings and cousins, to come together and start building an asteroid deflection system.

Full text

THE voters have spoken. So, what now? How will our still divided government deal with our mounting threats and challenges?

Shared fear can help.

A Bedouin proverb says, “Me against my brother, my brothers and me against my cousins, then my cousins and me against strangers.” Human beings are pretty good at uniting to fight at whatever level is most important at a given moment. This is why every story about a team of warriors or superheroes features an internal rivalry, but all hatchets are buried just before the climactic final battle in which the team vanquishes the external enemy.

A national election focuses our attention on a single level of competition — political party versus political party. Let’s call that “me and my brother against our cousin.” But after that, it’s time for our national team to come together to fight the many threats and enemies that confront us. Let’s unite with our cousins to fight the stranger!

Except that we didn’t do it four years ago, when things looked even grimmer, and there’s no sign that we’re going to do it now. Since the 1990s we’ve been stuck at one level — party versus party. Partisanship is not a bad thing. We need multiple teams to develop competing visions for voters to choose among. But when so many of our leaders can’t even occasionally place national interest before party interest, we’ve crossed over into hyperpartisanship. And that’s a very bad thing, because it amplifies other problems like the debt crisis, the absence of a rational immigration policy and our aging infrastructure.

We the people bear some of the blame for what’s happened in Congress, for we, too, have become more angrily partisan. So what can we do to pull ourselves up to that higher level? How can we unite not just with our brothers and sisters, but with our cousins?

One way is to focus on common threats, rather than on common ground, just as the Bedouin proverb suggests. It’s only the threat of the stranger that brings the extended family together. A physical attack by outsiders — like Pearl Harbor or 9/11 — binds people together like nothing else. But what if there is no such attack? Can trade competition with China do it? What about a threat we created ourselves?

Well, that depends. A basic principle of moral psychology is that “morality binds and blinds.” In many pre-agricultural societies, groups achieved trust and unity by circling around sacred objects. In modern societies, much larger groups bind themselves together by treating certain books, flags, leaders or ideals as sacred and by symbolically circling around them. But if your team circles too fast, you lose the ability to see clearly or think for yourself. You go blind to evidence that contradicts your group’s moral consensus, and you become enraged at teammates who suggest that the other side is not entirely bad (as New Jersey’s governor, Chris Christie, is now finding out).

Unlike a foreign attack, a problem that threatens only one side’s sacred values can therefore divide us, rather than unite us. It’s as though a giant asteroid is headed for the Earth. One side sees it coming and screams, but the louder it screams, the more stubbornly the other side covers its ears and averts its eyes. Here are a few of the asteroids hurtling toward us, which half of us can already see with our naked eyes:

• Rising temperatures. The left has been raising the alarm about global warming since the 1990s. It’s a threat to the environment and to poor people around the world — sacred values for liberals — but the right largely denies the scientific consensus, in part because many of the remedies would require limits on industry and intervention into markets (which would violate sacred values for some conservatives). Hurricane Sandy gave us a small taste of what’s likely to happen more frequently.

• Rising entitlements. The right has railed against entitlement spending since the 1960s, and its frustration boiled over in the Tea Party movement. The welfare state is a threat to traditional conservative values of personal responsibility (people have less incentive to plan for their own future) and fiscal solvency. Despite the logical errors in Mitt Romney’s “47 percent” comments, we do face bankruptcy when the baby boomers retire and a shrinking percentage of workers must pay the ever growing expenses of a ballooning class of retirees. Yet the Democrats want to “protect” older Americans, students and almost everyone else from the need to sacrifice.

• Rising inequality. The left has been protesting rising inequality since Ronald Reagan cut taxes on the rich and benefits for the poor, and a great deal of recent scholarship documents the socially, morally and economically damaging effects of separating the haves ever further from the have-nots. Nearly all the gains in productivity in the last 30 years have gone to the wealthiest, but the right justifies the trend and denies its toxicity.

• Rising births to unmarried women. In 1960, 5 percent of American children were born to unmarried women. In 2010, that number was more than 40 percent. Conservatives treat the traditional family as the irreplaceable building block of society and are therefore horrified that unmarried motherhood will soon be the national norm. The left has been ambivalent about the value of marriage (at least, before the push for gay marriage), sometimes viewing it as a patriarchal institution and reluctant to admit that a stable marriage is very good for children.

In other words, America faces many serious threats, but each side sees some and denies others. Morality binds and blinds. The philosopher John Stuart Mill described this problem in 1840, noting that in almost all major ideological controversies, “both sides were in the right in what they affirmed, though wrong in what they denied, and that if either could have been made to take the other’s views in addition to its own, little more would have been needed to make its doctrine correct.”

To see Mill’s diagnosis in action, note that marriage is disappearing primarily among Americans without a four-year college degree. Marriage confers so many benefits on children that it helps them rise into the upper tier of wealth; children who don’t benefit from a stable marriage are more likely to fall. So if you are a liberal who is worried about the inequality asteroid, you might consider teaming up with a conservative group trying to promote marriage.

But then you’d run smack into the problem that women rarely want to marry a man with no job and poor prospects. So if you are a conservative who cares about the unmarried-mother asteroid, you might want to team up with liberal groups working to improve educational equality and to find ways to keep poor young men in school.

When we focus only on the one asteroid that most frightens us, we feel anger at the partisans on the other side. We curse their blindness without recognizing our own. But if we can look up into the sky and see a whole fleet of asteroids heading for us, we lose our tunnel vision and experience a healthy form of panic. We’re in big trouble, and anyone who does that hyperpartisan stuff now should be ashamed — or kicked out of office. The day after Election Day is the day for all of us, and our siblings and cousins, to come together and start building an asteroid deflection system.

Jonathan Haidt, a professor of business ethics at the New York University Stern School of Business, is the author, most recently, of “The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion.”

http://www.nytimes.com/2012/11/07/opinion/after-the-election-fear-is-our-only-chance-at-unity.html?src=me&ref=general&_r=0