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Saturday, November 5, 2011

Having It Both Ways: American Culture or Merely Congress?

Under the terms of the debt-ceiling budget agreement enacted during the summer in 2011, members of a joint Congressional committee, evenly divided between the parties as well as between the two chambers, had until Nov. 23 of that year to recommend ways to reduce budget deficits by at least $1.2 trillion over 10 years. Both houses had to vote on the package by Dec. 23, 2011. If no legislation is enacted, the government would automatically cut almost $500 billion from military spending, with an equal amount from nonmilitary programs, between 2013 and 2021.

As negotiations in the “super committee” were becoming mired in November, some Democrats were becoming “increasingly concerned” that some Republicans on the committee, in declaring that they would not be able to accept new revenues toward deficit reduction, were calculating that they would be able to reverse the triggered cuts. Not just any cuts—only those from military spending were loathed by the Republicans. Even as the joint committee was still meeting, Republicans on the House and Senate Armed Services Committees were “readying legislation that would undo the automatic across-the-board cuts totaling nearly $500 billion for military programs, or exchange them for cuts in other areas.”

“Republicans should not count on taking the easy way out if they continue to resist a balanced deficit deal that includes revenue increases,” warned Senator Charles E. Schumer, Democrat of New York. Representative Chris Van Hollen, Democrat of Maryland and a member of the joint committee, said the attempt to undo the triggers “reflects a total lack of seriousness.” Adding that such efforts would not be successful, he said they were “the result of people trying to escape the fundamental choices before us, and one of those choices is whether or not we are willing to end special interest tax breaks to pay for defense.” Interestingly because he is a Republican, the House speaker, John A. Boehner of Ohio, said he wanted the joint committee to succeed, but that he would not tamper with the mechanism for automatic cuts. “I would feel bound by it,” he said. “It was part of the agreement. The sequester is ugly. Why? Because we don’t want anybody to go there.” That’s just the point; the default of automatic cuts was put into the agreement as an incentive for the joint committee to reach an agreement. Consisting of both parties equally, both sides would have to give. I contend that the Republicans were much less used to giving, so they were less tolerant to the hard choice that the default they had voted for foisted on them.

The porous path of least resistance is often easy to spot. Republicans being forced to choose between agreeing to tax increases and defense cuts found themselves between a rock and a hard place—that is, between anti-tax lobbyists such as Grover Norquist and defense contractors such as Lockheed Martin. “There is more fear this time,” Representative Mo Brooks, Republican of Alabama, said about the anxiety being expressed by military contractors in his district. Simply put, the Republicans were used to being able to satisfy both Norquist and Lockheed, so the lawmakers went after what they perceived as a false choice. The Speaker was being a statesman in refusing to support such efforts.

When all of a sudden getting things all one’s way is no longer possible, perception itself can be affected—such as in viewing the defense cuts as unfair or disproportionate even though they were equal to the non-defense cuts that the Democrats would have to swallow in the absence of an agreement in the joint committee. In other words, that the Democrats were not trying to change the mix of sequestration cuts even though half of those cuts were politically noxious. This suggests that the Republicans may have felt more entitled to getting things all their way than did the Democrats. Tolerance for being in a tight spot is easier if one is not used getting one’s way and thus does not necessary expect it. In other words, respect for even one’s own rules tends not to hold up to a mentality that privileges getting 100% of one’s position.

That more Americans are conservative than liberal may have been providing the Republicans in Congress with a “playing field” leaning in their favor. Hence, they could typically avoid being the side to blink. For example, during the summer of 2011, they successfully kept raising taxes off the table. When suddenly faced with pressure to give even a bit on this point, the ongoing mentality seeks to deconstruct the default giving rise to the pressure rather than to respect the hard choice and the structure undergirding it.

Beyond partisan politics, it is legitimate to ask whether the American cultures (and there are several, as in Europe) unduly support or even value the mentality wherein a person demand his own way. “My way or the highway” is a common expression in the U.S. I contend that it is particularly salient in American business. Perhaps Republicans coming from or representing that sector of society are so used the self-serving rigidity of “corporate policy” that they won’t even sit down to discuss a deal unless it fits with their “ground rules.”  I suspect that the instinct to deconstruct anything that pressures a choice that involves not getting everything one’s own way is engrained in American managerialism and corporate culture.

I suspect that people reading this essay who have visited the U.S. and are from other regions may be nodding in agreement, Yes, that’s how the rest of us see you guys, but you don’t see it. Americans are perhaps so used to the entitlement of my way or the highway and so used to evading rather than respecting even self-imposed hard choices the mentality within is hardly even recognized, much less expunged in any meaningful way. I see my fellow Americans so used to the rigidity and selfishness of employees (and managers) in retail sectors of American business that it can scarcely be imagined that customer (or, falsely, “guest”) relations in the states might be severely dysfunctional in terms of social psychology.

If I am correct here, then the way the chronic deficits are dealt with may be as problematic as the fiscal imbalances themselves, for both evince a jejune mentality that refuses to grow up and face adult decisions.

Jennifer Steinhauer and Robert Pear, “Lawmakers Aim to Stop Defense Cuts if Debt Panel Fails,” The New York Times, November 5, 2011. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/11/05/us/politics/lawmakers-aim-to-stop-pentagon-cuts-if-deficit-panel-fails.html