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Wednesday, December 12, 2012

The Fiscal Cliff: December's "Perfect Storm" of Apathy

Now, to make the holidays just a little more stressful, we face the conundrum of the fiscal cliff. The media is buzzing about the impending dive into financial oblivion: obstinate Republicans and Democrats led by President Obama and John Boehner remain partisan opponents in the face of the issues -- increasing tax rates on top earners, imposing steep cuts in government entitlement programs like Medicare and Social Security -- while playing juvenile politics with labor unions, liberal pressure groups, and community organizations.

I am tired of all the complaining, backbiting, and argument. For the good of the American people, I wish the Congress and the President would draft a compromise, pass the needed legislation, and take the actions necessary to help America move forward. Now, it seems no one in politics appreciates the input of their counterparts who hold different political ideals. Even worse, it seems politicians in our democracy have lost the ability to cooperate and find common ground to implement needed change.

A Little Background on the Necessity of Cooperation

Cooperation is how the components of a system work together to achieve global properties. The very building blocks of existence require cooperation. For example, atoms cooperate in a simple way, by combining to make up molecules, and then nature uses these molecules to build things such as H2O, a necessity for human life. And, of course, the components in a cell work together to keep it living while cells work together and communicate to produce multi-cellular organisms.
In terms of human interaction, cooperation means that individuals, often selfish and independent, join together to create a highly complex, greater-than-the sum-of-its-parts system.

Cooperation may be coerced (forced), voluntary (freely chosen), or even unintentional, and consequently individuals and groups might cooperate even though they have almost nothing in common such as interests or goals. Examples of that can be found in market trade, military wars, families, workplaces, schools and prisons, and more generally any institution or organization of which individuals are part (out of their own choice, by law, or forced).

Competition may seem to be the antithesis of cooperation, but this is not so. Studies have found that cooperation and competition can provide unique benefits to individuals, and that each may have some drawbacks when experienced alone. Thus, this combination of cooperation and competition provides the best of both worlds to participants, and helps explain why team sports are so popular around the world. These findings suggest that structuring activities to include both can facilitate high levels of both intrinsic motivation and performance and, thus, help form a stronger force.
(J.M. Taruer and J.M. Harackiewicz, "The Effects of Cooperation and Competition on Intrinsic Motivation and Performance, J Pers Soc Psychol 86, 2004)

How Do Emotions Enter Into Cooperation?

Cooperation and competition also involve human emotion. People are influenced by their emotions when they think. Emotions, as part of a system of comprehension, have co-evolved with human group formation. And, it is emotions that furnish the most important reason why humans don't make decisions as rational actors who seek only to maximize their individual well-being

Indeed, emotions are a non-rational instrument for social behaviors such as bonding, trusting, judging, and monitoring that enable people to find ways to cooperate on mutual enterprises. Humans employ leverage and use the power of emotions to get group members to contribute to collective self-management of resources.

Emotions can operate primarily in dyadic relationships (a group of two), and they can operate in collective contexts. Dyadic emotions include romantic love, gratitude, anger, envy, jealousy, guilt, righteousness, and contempt.

Emotions that are primarily dyadic include romantic love, gratitude, anger, envy, jealousy, guilt righteousness and contempt. Romantic love is seen as a means of overcoming a barrier to the kind of cooperation we see in parenting -– the temptation to defect in the short term on a relationship that requires a long-term investment. "A number of investigators have suggested that some emotions can be understood as mechanisms design to commit people to behavior that yields long-term payoffs, thus overcoming the temptation for short-term defection. Romantic love, a universal human emotion that underpins pair bonding, appears to be such a mechanism."

(Daniel M.T. Fessler and Kevin J. Haley, "The Strategy of Affect: Emotions in Human Cooperation," Genetic and Cultural Evolution of Cooperation, The MIT Press, 2003)

What does research say about the willingness to reciprocate cooperation?

"Where romantic love is about how one feels about another person, gratitude addresses how one feels about somebody's behavior, and can be an emotional currency that binds one to reciprocity. 'Gratitude focuses both attention and a positive, affiliative orientation on a party who has supplied the actor with a substantial benefit. In the context of its initial elicitation, gratitude seems to prompt the actor to recognize a valuable interaction partner and subsequently signal a willingness to reciprocate.'
"Why do people get so angry when someone cuts ahead of them in a queue or in traffic? This is clue to the evolutionary advantage of anger as a means of protecting ones own interests, but when it comes to the thus-far unexplained human propensity to punish cheaters, even at a cost to themselves, anger might be instrumental in conferring advantage to a group that requires monitoring and sanction of free riders in order to maintain a public good or create an institution for collective action:

'If gratitude is elicited by receipt of a benefit, its opposite is anger, elicited by actual or attempted exploitation or harm. More formally, anger is the response to the infliction of a cost. In addition to showing an "irrational" willingness to reward generosity, subjects in behavioral economics experiments also show an eagerness to punish uncooperative partners…Together, these results clearly demonstrate that even within the confines of finite anonymous games, angry individuals often place paramount importance on harming the transgressor, and are willing to incur substantial costs in order to do so.'"

(Daniel M.T. Fessler and Kevin J. Haley, "The Strategy of Affect: Emotions in Human Cooperation," Genetic and Cultural Evolution of Cooperation, The MIT Press, 2003)

Deutsch suggests six “cooperative relations” in which he describes six positive characteristics that make cooperation within a group more likely. These six factors include:

1. Effective communication.
2. Friendliness, helpfulness, and less obstructiveness.
3. Coordination of effort, divisions of labor, orientation of task achievements, orderliness in discussion, and high productivity.
4. Feelings of agreement with the ideas of others and a sense of basic similarity in beliefs in one’s own ideas and in the value that other members attach to those ideas.
5. The willingness to enhance the other’s power (as others capabilities are strengthened, you are strengthened).
6. Defining conflicting interests as a mutual problem to be solved by collaborative effort.

(Morton Deutsch, "Cooperation and Conflict," International Handbook
of Organizational Teamwork, 2003)

In his six points, Deustch articulates the ideal features one would expect to find in an environment of a cooperative organization. And just as these factors contribute toward the cooperativeness of a group, one would find the opposite characteristics prevalent in a group where internal or in-group competition prevails.

Why Does Congress Represent the "Perfect Storm of Apathy"?
Professor Elliot Aronson, named one of the most eminent psychologists of the 20th century according to the Review of General Psychology, did research on desegregation and found that certain conditions help groups overcome deep-seated conflicts that allow opposing groups to co-exist in a state of permanent rivalry, separated by a firewall of distrust, stereotypes, and stubbornness. He says almost none of these helpful preconditions exist in Congress today."
(Greg Ferenstein, "How Political Psychology Explains Washington's
Debt-Limit Deadlock," The Atlantic, August 1 2011)

The following are the conditions Aronson found:
1. Interdependence
Aronson found that without interdependence, the incentive is always to steamroll through the opposition on the path to a prize that can only be held by one lucky group.

In the zero sum world of politics, where there are a finite number of elected offices,
the failure of one party is necessarily a win for the competitor.

"However, not all democracies are two-party zero-sum battle grounds. In the multi-party government of Switzerland, for instance, groups must form constantly changing coalitions of the four ruling parties to achieve a majority; a rival party on one issue might be a key partner to securing a majority on another. The spirit of cooperation underlies the entire conversation, as politicians know that burning bridges will haunt them in the future."

"Also, America's unusually strong two-party democracy is mathematically cemented by its peculiar winner-take-all voting system, where a single elected official represents an entire district by securing at least 51 percent of the vote. Proportional voting, in contrast, evenly slices the representative pie; so, if a district has 10 available seats, 2 seats will be filled by the party with 20 percent of the vote. Winner-take-all systems also crowd out third parties, who can't come close to securing a majority in any one district."

2. Friendly Social Interactions
Aronson says Congress now lacks what he considers the second precondition for cooperation: frequent social gatherings with multiple members of the opposite group.

"Before the steady rise of five-day weekend campaign fundraising in the 80's and 90's, which dramatically reduced the number of congressional voting days and committee meetings, President Bill Clinton has reminisced, members could spend more time with each other in D.C. 'They got to rest, they got to see their friends, they got to meet with members of the Senate and both parties and talk through issues,' he said. The result was a more thoughtful, more cooperative environment."
"Weekend BBQ's and after-hour drinks used to bring elected officials together as colleagues, where they could observe each other as well-intentioned individuals with reasonably different beliefs. 'Meeting on a friendly basis, which is apparently less prevalent now than it used to be, is very important," says Aronson, "because then you get to know the person as a person, and not just as an empty suit.'"

3. Strong Ethos of Cooperation

According to Aronson, time spent at home campaigning in constituent districts on the weekends has been especially hard on the third condition for conflict-resolution: a norm of cooperation, the unspoken expectation that compromise is the right thing to do.

"A recent poll of Americans' beliefs on compromise found
that a whopping 66 percent of Republicans said they would
 'rather have a congressperson who sticks to his or her principles, no matter what'
than one who 'compromises to get things done.'
Ironically enough, Democratic beliefs were a mirror-image of conservatives,
with 68 percent supporting compromise."

"This schism played out when House Majority Leader Eric Cantor boldly declared that the Republican comprise on the budget debate was 'the fact that we're even discussing voting for a debt-ceiling increase,' explaining, 'What I don't think the White House understands is how difficult it is for fiscal conservatives to say they're going to vote to pay for a debt ceiling increase.'"

"Indeed, compromise may violate what many conservative constituents believe politicians are elected to do. For congressmen in negotiation, overt cooperativeness may feel like a betrayal of the demands of angry constituents, still fresh in their minds from the weekend's campaigning.

"Aronson says that in his own experiments, a 'gang' mentality that viewed cooperation as a sign of weaknesses was one of the greatest obstacles he encountered while trying to desegregate students."

My Take

Lord knows Congress needs to be schooled in the arts of cooperation and compromise -- key components of any natural or man-made system. Our very bodies are wonderful cooperative systems of anatomical wonder. This should make us realize that we must apply that same principle of working together to accomplish the word required by a society.

Healthy competition only strengthens cooperation within a group. Yet, a person within a group who feels used or slighted in some manner sometimes places tremendous importance on punishing the other person who inflicted the personal "cost."

This is an example of how emotion enters into group cooperation. And, since emotion is largely non rational, the result may be disastrous: people who feel aggrieved may inflict harm upon someone else perceived as an arch enemy. Or, as emotions flare, they may refuse to communicate or work with others who hold opposing viewpoints. I believe Congress has lost the ability to produce worthy bipartisan actions because they allow their emotions to rule and make them "party puppets" instead of independent, logical thinkers. To them, competitors are enemies. So, in a two-party system, they learn to become apathetic, lazy, bias Republicans or Democrats.

Competition infected by fanatic partisanship soon becomes full of dirty backstabbing, ugly accusation, and emotion-driven hatred. How can a person unable to compromise have principles? These days the cockeyed world sees the person who "gives in," even a little bit, as a wimp without commitment. How sad when cooperation and compromise would solve many volatile problems.

Whether one-to-one or within a group, a human is dependent upon cooperation. That is a fact upon which life depends. As we all prepare to celebrate Christmas and New Year, we teeter on the deadly fiscal cliff. One way or another, politicians need to get their heads together and have the decency to plot a course toward responsibility.

The American public is sick of stalemate and party politics. The first step for all elected officials should be to spend time learning the value of cooperating and accepting the pains of "letting go." If they truly believe they "represent" us, they need to start doing so by using the talents and skills of all those in both parties. Enough wasted energy on emotion -- instead, let's see them solve mutual problems through boatloads of collaborative efforts.

“Ethics is in origin the art
of recommending to others
the sacrifices required
for cooperation with oneself.”
-Bertrand Russell

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