How would you negotiate a government response to an epidemic … with a party who believe the disease was caused by witches? (More)

Getting to Yes Again, Part III: Negotiating Different Realities (Non-Cynical Saturday)

This week Morning Feature revisited the classic Getting to Yes by Roger Fisher, William Ury, and Bruce Patton of the Harvard Negotiation Project. Thursday we looked at the problem of positional bargaining and the method of principled negotiation. Yesterday we considered the most common objections to principled negotiation. Today we review the budget negotiations through the lens of principled negotiation.

Our discussion of Getting to Yes in August, 2011 concluded with the ten most common questions posed to the authors during lectures and seminars. One of the most important elements of principled negotiation is the use of objective criteria to weigh proposed solutions, and one of their most common questions relates to that point:

What if the other side believes in a different standard of fairness? – You may not be able to agree on objective criteria. Explore why each party proposed their standards. Is the difference grounded in values, culture, experience, and/or perceptions? Resolve differing criteria as best you can through principled negotiation. After that, consider trading off, inviting an arbitrator, or some other fair process to decide the remaining criteria.

A Hypothetical …

That sounds very reasonable, but what if a disease is sweeping the community and you’re trying to negotiate a government response … with a party who believe the disease is caused by witches? Their proposed solutions might include:

  • Mandatory church attendance
  • Banning Harry Potter and other non-religious works
  • Witch hunts, with torture of suspects and public executions of those convicted

If that sounds ridiculous, consider that for 300 years witch hunts were a common response to famine, disease, and other public health concerns. So were pogroms against Jews, and attacks on “Gypsies, Muslims, lepers, and other minorities.”

As a negotiator, you propose quarantines and more funding for sanitation programs, public health services, and research on this new disease. The other party demands compulsory religious services, a ban on non-religious media, and witch hunts. You ask “Why?” to learn the interests behind their positions – as good negotiators do – and the other negotiator responds that the disease is divine punishment for moral decay and especially witchcraft. You probe a bit further and learn they define “witchcraft” as … contemporary feminism.

In fact, they insist the witch hunts should start with leaders and members of groups like the National Organization for Women, and the women who write and comment at Jezebel and other feminist websites. (In fact, they say the name of that website is basically a confession.) And if you think that’s absurd, consider who Jerry Falwell blamed for 9/11, and Mike Huckabee’s response to the yesterday’s horrific massacre in Newtown, Connecticut.

… or not?

Now consider the Republicans’ budget proposals, grounded in what Paul Krugman called A Dark Age of Macroeconomics:

The answer, I think, is that we’re living in a Dark Age of macroeconomics. Remember, what defined the Dark Ages wasn’t the fact that they were primitive — the Bronze Age was primitive, too. What made the Dark Ages dark was the fact that so much knowledge had been lost, that so much known to the Greeks and Romans had been forgotten by the barbarian kingdoms that followed.

The Republicans buttress their position with claims that “Obama raised taxes,” that “tax cuts lead to economic growth,” that “Obama has been on a spending binge,” that “the stimulus money was wasted.”

In fact, only 8% of trained economists support the Republicans’ radical economic ideology. This is, as Jonathan Chait writes, Why Republicans Can’t Propose Spending Cuts:

Reporters are presenting this as a kind of negotiating problem, based on each side’s desire for the other to stick its neck out first. But it actually reflects a much more fundamental problem than that. Republicans think government spending is huge, but they can’t really identify ways they want to solve that problem, because government spending is not really huge. That is to say, on top of an ideological gulf between the two parties, we have an epistemological gulf. The Republican understanding of government spending is based on hazy, abstract notions that don’t match reality and can’t be translated into a workable program.
There really isn’t money to be cut everywhere. The United States spends way less money on social services than do other advanced countries, and even that low figure is inflated by our sky-high health-care prices. The retirement benefits to programs like Social Security are quite meager. Public infrastructure is grossly underfunded.

The Bowles-Simpson “plan” was an earnest and badly needed attempt to reconcile the GOP’s hazy belief that government is enormous with reality. They did everything they could possibly do: They brought in representatives from all sides for long meetings with budget experts, going through all aspects of federal policy in detail, in the hope of reaching an agreement on the proper scope of government and how to pay for it. It failed. The Bowles-Simpson plan wound up punting on all the major questions because it simply couldn’t bridge that gulf between perception and reality. That’s why, in lieu of any ability to identify government functions to eliminate, the plan simply pretended the federal government could have everybody do a lot more work for less pay.

Insist on Objective Criteria

The Republicans’ problem is not simply that their proposals are unpopular. It’s that their economic worldview is no more connected to Realworldia than blaming an epidemic on witchcraft, or blaming 9/11 on feminism, or blaming a school massacre on the lack of mandatory school prayer and Bible readings.

The authors of Getting to Yes offer some reasonable guidelines for how to resolve differing objective criteria, but even those presume both parties have at least some grounding in reality. In this case, that’s simply not true – at least not for the far-right Republicans threatening mutiny against Speaker John Boehner – and that makes President Obama’s job a whole lot harder.

I don’t have a complete solution to that, and I doubt anyone does. But as we grassroots Democratic activists follow the negotiations and assess the final deal, we must recognize three clear facts: (1) President Obama wants more in this deal than simply higher tax rates on billionaires; (2) House Republicans have votes to block those other programs President Obama wants; and, (3) Speaker Boehner must pacify the GOP base in Right Outer Ideologia.

President Obama can’t give in on the economic equivalent of witch hunts, non-religious media bans, or compulsory religious services. But he may have to give them a national day of prayer.


Happy Saturday!