Friday, November 12, 2010
Both sides know that if they let the deadline pass, both sides will certainly lose. You might think that would make this tax debate easier to resolve, but it doesn't appear that it will be easy at all. Why?
they will refuse to compromise on this matter of principle. Meanwhile, supporters of the Democrats' position are already expressing their disgust at any sign that the Democrats may "cave in" to any of the Republicans' demands. Again, remember that both sides lose if they can't make a deal, so all this posturing could amount to a game of chicken, in which one side might have to give in to avoid disaster. As in all games of chicken, the "winner" is the one who is most willing to risk mutual destruction. Alternatively, both must try to find a face-saving result that will allow both sides to claim that they won, or else they will be attacked by their own constituents for displaying weakness or betraying their principles.
Could this sort of posturing have been avoided? Only if the parties had been able to frame the debate in a way that recognized each sides' true interests, instead of as a contest of wills. What should have allowed a more rational debate to occur is the recognition that both sides share some interests, and also that each side has interests that internally conflict. Republicans say they are interested in stimulating the economy and reducing the size of government, but they also say they are interested in reducing the deficit. Tax cuts might serve one purpose but make it harder to achieve another. Democrats are also interested in the conflicting goals of stimulating the economy and reducing the deficit, but they would prefer to stimulate the economy by increasing public works spending, rather than reducing rich people's taxes. The parties' common interests should suggest numerous ways of resolving the issue of an appropriate tax rate for millionaires in a way that satisfies their shared goals of long term deficit reduction and short term economic stimulus. Wouldn't it be a tremendous sign of maturity in our political debates if both sides could announce that they have agreed on a result that satisfies a large measure of their political goals? Instead both sides have fallen into the trap of trying to achieve a result that they can portray as a victory over the other side. Both sides have also tried to taint any other result as an illegitimate compromise, or as one side "caving in" to the other's demands. This kind of language makes it harder to solve what should be a solvable problem.
So what I would suggest to critics on both the left and the right is that instead of getting mad at our leaders for considering the possibility of compromise, what we ought to be mad about is their inability to work together to get a bill passed that the majority of Americans would probably support. Having our elected leaders work together constructively to solve problems was the change I thought we voted for in 2008. But we need to pressure them to do that, instead of attacking them for any signs that they might be willing to recognize the legitimacy of any opposing points of view.
I don't want to get into a big debate about the merits of these tax proposals. Actually, I don't mind. I could debate tax policy all day, but that is not the point of this post. (If it were up to me, we'd be phasing in an increase in the top rate back up to 50%, where it was during Reagan's presidency, and we'd also be talking about a VAT and a big tax on gasoline, and then we'd be discussing what to do with the budget surplus, like we did in the 90's.) But the point of this post is that we ought to recognize that people have a range of legitimate views on how to make our tax system more fair, that in a democracy all views have some weight, and that our elected leaders ought to be able to sit down and work this issue out like grown-ups, instead of fighting it out like children.
(A slightly different version of this post appears on my mediation blog.)