Creating Disincentives: Lessons of the Brier Patch

Recent events in American politics illustrate the risks of negotiation strategies that rely on disincentives — that is, when negotiators plant “poison pills” or “time bombs” to encourage their counter-parties to avoid failure of the process.  And the lesson is, be careful the disincentive you choose; it may not be all that undesirable to your adversary.


In 2011, President Obama and the Republicans in the House agreed that, in the event they were unable to reach agreement by March 1, 2013, a series of indiscriminate spending cuts would take place, purportedly to reduce the federal deficit.  The source of these cuts would be from every aspect of government spending except the source of the deficit itself — entitlement programs — but they would not distinguish among military and non-military discretionary spending, and thus would be (presumably) politically unpalatable.  This was proposed by President Obama, apparently, in an effort to prompt Republicans to engage in negotiation with some “skin in the game” rather than simply obstructing the negotiations, as he perceived they had in the past.

In creating this disincentive, however, the President seems to have forgotten that the stated interests of his adversaries was to cut government spending.  Thus, were the “poison pill” to be triggered, the outcome would be consistent with the Republicans’ underlying interest and inimical to his own.

So the Republicans were confronted, during January and February, with a choice between negotiating with the President for a mix of increased revenues and targeted spending cuts, or a BATNA of the spending cuts they had always advocated.  Guess which they chose?

Thus, it can be argued, the less powerful party in the negotiation got far closer to its interest than the more powerful party, because of the latter’s own strategic error.

When I was a young boy I was taken into Philadelphia to see a movie in a grand movie palace.  It was Disney’s Song of the South.  And one of the stories was of the rabbit who, caught by the fox and bear, willingly offered himself for supper, insisting he would rather be eaten than thrown into the sharp, thorny, nettled brier patch.  It took a few repetitions, but the fox eventually realized what the rabbit was saying, and calculated that it would be more enjoyable for him to subject the rabbit to excruciating torture than to eat him.  In went the rabbit, landing in his own home.  He lived in the brier patch, you see:

I’m born and bred in the brier patch.  Don’t mind the thorns, ’cause they don’t prick.  I fooled ya ’cause I’m mighty slick.

The scene from the movie can be relived here.  The scene from the negotiation lesson is located along Interstate 95, near where the highway crosses the Potomac River.

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