Saturday, January 19, 2013

Three professors of false equivalence look at the Obama-Boehner faceoff

The Times' James B. Stewart today interviews three management gurus who think that "getting to yes" in a deficit reduction deal ought to be easy. These men presumably know a good deal about corporate negotiations. But their apparent ignorance of politics -- political dynamics generally, and the battles of the last two years in particular -- is breathtaking.

The three cited experts, William Ury of Harvard, Seth Freeman of Columbia's Stern School, and Daylian Cain of Yale,  collectively assert the following: both sides are taking and have taken maximalist, uncompromising positions; neither allows the other any face-saving outs; and they are not that far apart substantively. Prof. Cain suggests that spending time together socially could make a substantive difference.   All of these assumptions are wrong.
Since the beginning of 2011, the more or less agreed-upon target for deficit reduction was to close the revenue-spending gap by $4 trillion over ten years -- a near-match to the $3.7 trillion in new revenue that would be gained simply by ending all of the Bush tax cuts.  Obama has never proposed that more than $1.6 trillion in new revenue be raised to help close that gap; he would plainly settle for little more than $1 trillion. In August 2011, he agreed to $1.5 trillion in 10-year spending cuts, along with another $1.2 trillion in sequestered across-the-board cuts if a replacement deal couldn't be reached in fall 2011, which it wasn't. No new revenue was part of that deal, negotiated under threat of national default as Republicans refused to raise the debt ceiling without these massive cuts.

This past December, with the Jan. 1 expiration of the Bush tax cuts as his trump card, Obama, still, seeking a grand bargain, moved in stages from proposing $1.6 trillion in new revenue and an additional $400 billion in spending cuts to $1.2 trillion in revenue and $900 billion in cuts. Boehner's response was to blow up the grand bargain negotiations with his ridiculous Plan B, raising a pittance, and he couldn't even get that minimal concession through his caucus. No amount of bonhomie would have reduced the intransigence of that caucus, and that is why round after round of negotiations has failed to yield a balanced deal.

The piecemeal agreements have been unbalanced to date because in the summer of 2011 Obama embraced negotiation under threat of debt ceiling default -- that is, he agreed to let Republicans hold the full faith and credit of the United States hostage. Now that he has refused to repeat that cardinal negotiating error, all three of these master negotiators cast him (or accede to Stewart's casting him) as a reckless Rambo:
“This isn’t rocket science,” William Ury told me this week. Dr. Ury, along with Roger Fisher, who was a law professor at Harvard at the time, wrote the classic work on negotiating, “Getting to Yes,” and has been refining his insights at the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School. “It’s sad to watch this kind of brinkmanship,” he said. “There are plenty of ways to arrive at a good, responsible agreement that’s satisfactory to each side and, above all, is good for the country. You could put some high school students together and they could do it.”
Seth Freeman, who teaches negotiation and conflict management at Columbia Business School and N.Y.U.’s Stern School of Business, added: “I’m marveling at the postures each side is taking, given the stakes. It gives you vertigo.”
Mr. Obama and the Republican leaders have shown scant evidence that they’ve absorbed any of the lessons that are now standard fare in the nation’s leading law and business schools. In each successive round of talks, they’ve expressed mounting anger and frustration, which only creates “huge and unnecessary obstacles to reaching an agreement,” Dr. Ury said.
Until the Republicans gave in on Friday, their positions seemed only to have hardened. Mr. Obama said he wouldn’t even talk to Republican leaders about raising the debt ceiling, saying at a news conference this week that “they will not collect a ransom in exchange for not crashing the American economy.” This is a standard negotiating stance, which is refusing to even discuss an issue, coupled with some provocative name-calling, since the use of  “ransom” suggests that Republicans are pirates or hostage takers.
“That’s a very high-risk, high-return approach,” Professor Freeman said.
“If you can convince the other side you are truly committed to your position and there’s no going back, and the other side believes you, you can win. But if not, and they call your bluff, you’ve got a Dr. Strangelove situation. I see similar rhetoric from the Republican side.”
For their part, the Republicans were taking a similarly hard line, at least until Friday. Mr. Boehner said he wouldn’t engage in any more one-on-one negotiations with Mr. Obama, and both he and Mr. McConnell had said they wouldn’t support raising the debt ceiling without addressing the deficit with spending cuts. They also refused to discuss further tax increases, saying that Republicans are “done” with that after the fiscal cliff deal raised taxes on the wealthy.
Dr. Ury said Thomas Schelling, a former economist at Harvard, compared the standoff to two trucks hurtling toward each other. One driver rips out the steering wheel and throws it out the window.
Professor Cain described the standoff as a “game of chicken” where “each side refuses to swerve.”
Basically, he continued, “this tactic aims at claiming a large portion of the pie: ‘Give me everything or I walk.’ That’s a very aggressive approach, and doesn’t foster creative deal-making at all. There’s no communication, so there’s little chance for a win-win outcome. So far, this has been a vicious circle. Each round of negotiations has been worse than the last and has begotten hostility. Reputations are on the line. Obama is worried about being too soft, so he’s being super firm. Boehner faces a revolt in the House.”
In offering up these helpful chestnuts, all three professors effectively suggest that by refusing to make policy concessions in exchange for a Republican agreement not to take the nation into default, Obama is playing Dr. Strangelove. They decline to notice that what has been demanded of him as an alternative is to accept massive spending cuts with no new revenue. Instead of addressing the negotiating problem the country has faced these past two years -- how to effectively cope with an extremist opposition that has the power to crash the world economy -- they engage in false equivalence unworthy of the high school students who could allegedly crack this negotiating nut. Excoriating Obama for characterizing debt ceiling brinksmanship as a ransom demand, they ignore the germane fact that the description is perfectly accurate and the tactic destructive and illegitimate.

In suggesting that by posturing less and yielding a bit on substance, the two sides could easily come to agreement, the trio betrays an ignorance that political negotiation, unlike business negotiation, is about far more than the substance of a given deal. Political competition, unlike business dealing, is zero-sum: one party's gain is another's loss, and those gains and losses are scored (or verbally conjured) in front of a national audience. Awareness of that career-shaping fact competes with politicians' no-doubt-usually-genuine desire to do substantive good.

This dynamic leads to the first rule of national politics, demonstrated through comprehensive statistical analysis by political scientist Frances Lee: presidential advocacy polarizes. Anything the president advocates, the opposition will oppose -- and, in the Obama era, demonize.  Obama is aware of this dynamic; that is why, when beginning to pursue a grand bargain in early 2011, he declined to lay out a detailed plan. In a February 15 press conference, he explained:
“If you look at history of how these deals get done, typically it’s not because there’s an Obama plan out there. Its’ because Democrats and Republican are serious about dealing with [these issues] in a serious way,” the president said. “This is not a matter of you go first or I go first,” he said before describing a goal of “everybody…ultimately getting in that boat at the same time so it doesn’t tip over.”
The fundamental reality of these negotiations is that the Republicans never got in the boat. In July 2011, Boehner could not get his caucus to accept a grotesquely lopsided deal, one that conservative columnist David Brooks said the Republicans would be insane not to accept, a 4-or-5-to-1 ratio of spending cuts to new revenue. This past December, as Obama publicly softened his original negotiating position in two stages, Boehner offered nothing in return. As one nervous Democrat observed to Greg Sargent:
"This fight is not going to be won by the president taking a step towards Boehner, Boehner taking a step toward the president, the president taking a step toward Boehner, Boehner taking a step toward the president and so forth until they meet in the middle,” says Damon Silvers, policy director at the AFL-CIO. “That hasn’t worked before. Boehner doesn’t take the steps.
The failure of three distinguished scholars of negotiating to recognize that dynamic is truly staggering.

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