Moral values and the fiscal cliff


President Barack Obama speaks at a bipartisan group of congressional leaders as Speaker of the House John Boehner looks on in the Roosevelt Room of the White House, on November 16, 2012. (OLIVIER DOULIERY / POOL/EPA)
November 27, 2012

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.

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