Also see this article posted online at its original source: http://www.globalethics.org/newsline/2012/12/17/political-brinksmanship/
Two more weeks until the United States pitches over the “fiscal cliff”!
The phrase is shorthand for the consequences anticipated on December
31 should the U.S. government fail to address the Budget Control Act of
2011 with its attendant tax hikes and spending cuts.
When Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke warned of the fiscal cliff
last February, he likely intended to heighten public awareness of the
risks that would follow should leaders fail to address the national
debt, spending, and the pending expiration of Bush-era tax cuts. Ten
months later, as the deadline for action looms closer, the term fiscal cliff
has been flung about so often that its power to shock has been replaced
by its power to annoy. It’s a phrase now amplified by dire warnings of
massive unemployment, Wall Street hoarding, economic stagnation, a
decimated federal credit rating, middle-class devastation, and other
apocalyptic forecasts. The language describing the negotiations
themselves is similarly extreme (and prone to sports metaphors). These
are gladiators, going multiple rounds in a showdown that is (variably)
stalled, softening, heating up, tense, and too late. The negotiators are
punching, posturing, leveraging, uncooperative, confident, blinking,
playing chicken, flailing, taking hostages, and seeking cover. Proposals
are laughable, dead on arrival, delusional, unserious, a charade, a
chess match, and unworthy of a response.
Exaggeration, hyperbole, and threats seem to be endemic to all forms
of negotiation, from used car prices to pro hockey contracts. At their
essence, are these strategies tantamount to lies? And if they are lies,
are they justified? Is their use ethical? Even if acceptable for
tactical advantage in job negotiations, are they appropriate in
legislation involving the world’s largest economy?
Under the best of circumstances, negotiators may find themselves
confronted by ethical dilemmas characterized by competing goods.
Truth-vs.-loyalty dilemmas arise when parties are inclined to be
forthright, but the strictures of the bargaining process or promises
made with allies prohibit transparency. Short-term-vs.-long-term
considerations also must be weighed as the immediate values of respect
and candor are juxtaposed against the ultimate aim of prevailing in the
deal. And the individual-vs.-community paradigm is evident when
negotiators weigh their own electoral interests with the needs of their
constituents, their donors, and the country at large. Similar conflicts
of interest are reflected in inside-outside messaging when negotiators
posture to maintain their followers and appease allies while making
covert diplomatic efforts to reach consensus with the other party.
Maybe such deceit does not even constitute an ethical dilemma. Some
would contend that it is a routine and expected element in any
negotiation. The extremes ostensibly create starting points from which
the parties can move closer to an acceptable compromise. Starting with
honesty and transparency would mean conceding past a fair midpoint if
the other party failed to do the same. Taking all statements at face
value is naive and violates the first rule of bargaining: “Let the buyer
beware.” Perhaps implicit in this view is the consequentialist position
that the ends justify the means. If the norms of negotiation involve
overstatements, omitting relevant facts, misrepresenting intentions, or
concealing the bottom line, isn’t it implicitly fair to all parties —
and therefore ethical?
According to Sisela Bok,
“A lie is a statement, believed by the liar to be false, made to
another person with the intention that the person be deceived by the
statement.” If the other party in a negotiation expects false positions
and will not be deceived by outlandish threats and brinkmanship, perhaps
the inflammatory statements are not technically lies. Still, they
clearly are not the truth, either. Bok cautions us about the slippery
slope that emerges when the principle of veracity is not universally
embraced. In cases like the fiscal cliff, there are other harms of
dishonesty to consider beyond the risk of deceiving the other party.
Played out on a national stage, amplified by a 24/7 news media
voraciously seeking a new twist on an old story, political leaders’
maneuvers do great damage. Extreme postures erode public confidence and
increase cynicism. Like the boy who cried wolf, our leaders’ extreme
positions create a public inured to warnings, discouraged about civic
engagement, and detached from the outcomes of political jousting. And
contrary to the popular wisdom about extremity as a precursor of
compromise, the noise and threats seem only to lead to further
escalation and distance between positions rather than to resolution.