Negotiation Failure and the Battle for the Television

Negotiation Failure and the Battle for the Television

By design, my home has only two televisions. One is in the master bedroom, a spacious place that also accommodates my wife’s extensive sewing activities. The television is there so that she can watch her current favorite show (right now, its old episodes of Monk) while she sews a fine seam.

The other is in the family room.

As most of you know, Carol and I have a rather large brood. Today, as many have moved on with their lives, we are down to only four of our offspring living at home.

Even among four, however, there can be competing demands for the television. The competition leads to discussions (okay, and arguments, and hissy fits, and a few other things from time to time). Over repeated rounds of having to work it out or not being able to use the TV at all, my kids are learning the fine art of negotiation.

On balance, this system works just fine . . . as long as everyone actually wants to be able to use the TV more than they want to win the argument. But if one participant actually would rather that no one get to use the TV than yield on their particular preference, negotiations collapse. The heated conflict that then ensues must be resolved parentis ex machina.

You know . . . like deus ex machina, roughly translated as “machine of the gods.” It’s a classical Greek theatric device to clean up the mess in a tragedy. The gods descend from Olympus, evil is punished, wrongs are righted, and the noble find their place in the Elysian Fields.

Parents, in the advent of more mundane familial tragedies, do the same thing. They descend from the study, or the balcony, or the master bedroom, punish the evil doers, right the wrongs, and place the just and the oppressed contentedly in front of their favorite show on the television.

If only we had an equivalent machina for Washington!

There is, however, a lesson in the television negotiations. What holds people together at the negotiation table is a shared sense that there is something on that table that, for one reason or another, each of them wants more than any particular outcome. In my family room, it’s the desire to be able to enjoy something on the television; a show, a movie, a game. But something that requires the television; they all want to enjoy its entertainment value.

In labor/management negotiations, that “something” is a contract. Management wants a contract so they can have a productive workforce, establish some stability of expectations of labor costs for the next period of time, and can get back to figuring out how to make a profit. Labor wants a contract so that their members can pay their bills, can have some stability of expectations about their income and working conditions for the next period of time, and can get back to figuring out how to create a life with the resources and constraints of their situation.

Historically, in budget negotiations in government, what has kept all of us at the negotiating table has been . . . well, a budget. City council members and mayors, Republicans and Democrats of all stripes, in both chambers of legislatures in state capitols and our nation’s capitol, in the governor’s mansions, and in the White House, have wanted to pass a budget. They have wanted to fund necessary programs, manage the financial affairs of the state, establish expectations for the next period of time about what will, and will not, be funded, at what level, under what terms, and get on about the business of, among other things, being re-elected.

If and when a significant segment of the parties to the negotiation care less about completing the task of adopting a budget than they do about their particular priority issues, negotiations will fail. Which would seem to be where we are.

Unless, of course, one knows of a good deus ex machina . . . or even a good parent.

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