Dangerous Logic

Every police force in the world has a hostage-negotiator on call, to discuss the stunningly obvious with the none-too-bright. Threatening to kill the hostage unless you get what you want makes no sense, because once you kill the hostage you’ll never get what you want, as then you’ll have absolutely no leverage at all. The hostage is only useful to you alive. Once the hostage is dead you’re screwed. What can you threaten then? The hostage-negotiator asks the hostage-taker to think about that. The idea that the hostage must be kept alive at all costs, for this to work at all, confuses the desperate party, and as for the idea that the desperate party in question will release the hostage or hostages unharmed once they get what they want – a taxi to the airport and a private jet to wherever – as soon as they do release the hostages then they’re in real trouble, because they’re completely on their own. They won’t get very far, and there’s no point in taking hostages a second time then, because the same thing will happen all over again. The point is that the whole idea of taking hostages is irrational. The job of the hostage-negotiator is to let that sink in. If it does, the hostage-taker will give up and meekly surrender. There was no point to any of it. The only danger is that when it sinks in the hostage-taker might say screw it and shoot the hostage or hostages and then himself, and then everyone will be dead. Too much logic can be dangerous. It leads to despair. The hostage-negotiator must be careful. Hostage-takers have fragile egos.

That’s the real problem. Taking that hostage, threatening death and destruction, is more of a statement than a useful tactic. It’s a way of announcing outrage, of showing the mad and evil world just what such a world can drive an otherwise sensible person to do. There’s always a bit of righteousness involved. The hostage-taker didn’t want it to come to this, but desperate times call for desperate measures, and they had no other choice – which is to say this wasn’t their fault, but someone else’s, that someone drove them to this. In fact, hostage-takers almost always want to be admired and respected. That no one ever finds them noble seems to surprise them.

It’s all quite tiresome, even if it has provided Hollywood screenwriters fodder for the last three or four decades, and it’s even more tiresome when it happens in Washington:

With each side claiming popular support, President Obama and Congress’s Republican leaders on Monday dug in on their conflicting positions about raising the nation’s debt limit, indicating that the president’s second term will open with a potentially perilous budget showdown.

Mr. Obama called the final news conference of his first term to reinforce before national television cameras his demand that Congress unconditionally increase the legal limit on the government’s authority to borrow money to pay its bills. But Republicans continued to insist that he agree to equal spending cuts.

“They will not collect a ransom in exchange for not crashing the American economy,” Mr. Obama vowed in the East Room, a week before his second inauguration. “The financial well-being of the American people is not leverage to be used. The full faith and credit of the United States of America is not a bargaining chip.”

In short, they need to see the logic here. If they shoot the hostage – if they crash the economy and destroy the world’s economy for several generations – they’ll have nothing – no leverage and world in ruins and everyone blaming them. It makes no sense. At least that’s the idea, even if something must be done:

Treasury secretary, Timothy F. Geithner, added to the pressure by writing to Congressional leaders that the department still expects to hit the limit between mid-February and early March.

“Treasury would be left to fund the government solely with the cash we have on hand on any given day,” he said, forcing it to choose among creditors, federal contractors, veterans, Social Security and Medicare beneficiaries and the many other claimants to federal dollars. Some Republicans support temporarily making choices among claimants, but the administration and some financial analysts say that approach would be unworkable and amount to the nation’s first default on its obligations.

Separately, Mr. Geithner and Gene Sperling, director of the White House National Economic Council, held a conference call with corporate executives, many of whom have expressed concern the threat of default could damage the economy. The administration is hoping that business leaders can persuade Republicans to avoid confrontation over the debt limit, but party leaders were undeterred.

Yep, the Republican Party actually said screw all those business leaders and corporate executives – they’d rather make their point – but Obama also had his point to make:

On the budget, Mr. Obama tried several times to emphasize that the debate over the debt ceiling was not one over how much the government should spend.

“I want to be clear about this: The debt ceiling is not a question of authorizing more spending,” he said. “Raising the debt ceiling does not authorize more spending. It simply allows the country to pay for spending that Congress has already committed to.”

His point is that their point – that the government should spend less – is not what the debt limit is even about.

It’s a mess, and the economist Robert Reich explains it this way:

But what, exactly, is the president’s strategy when the debt ceiling has to be raised, if the GOP hasn’t relented? He’s ruled out an end-run around the GOP.

The White House said over the weekend that the president won’t rely on the 14th Amendment, which arguably gives him authority to raise the debt ceiling on his own.

And his Treasury Department has nixed the idea of issuing a $1 trillion platinum coin that could be deposited with the Fed, instantly creating more money to pay the nation’s bills.

In a pinch, the Treasury could issue IOUs to the nation’s creditors – guarantees they’ll be paid eventually. But there’s no indication that’s Obama’s game plan, either.

So it must be that he’s counting on public pressure – especially from the GOP’s patrons on Wall Street and big business – to force Republicans into submission.

Obama also may be counting on the Republicans to see the inescapable logic here, but that may be a bit too hopeful:

Obama’s strategy depends on there being enough sane voices left in the GOP to influence others. That’s far from clear. Just moments after the president’s Tuesday news conference, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell called on Obama to get “serious about spending,” adding that “the debt limit is the perfect time for it.”

They’d just as soon shoot the hostage, even if it makes no sense. In fact, Politico tells us that House Republicans really do want to shut down the government to force President Obama to “finally cut spending” and they want to do that by the end of March:

GOP officials said more than half of their members are prepared to allow default unless Obama agrees to dramatic cuts he has repeatedly said he opposes. Many more members, including some party leaders, are prepared to shut down the government to make their point. House Speaker John Boehner “may need a shutdown just to get it out of their system” said a top GOP leadership adviser. “We might need to do that for member-management purposes – so they have an endgame and can show their constituents they’re fighting.”

Ah, it is a statement more than it is a useful tactic, and Kevin Drum offers this:

Obama, of course, has already cut spending by nearly $2 trillion over the past couple of years, and the upcoming sequestration cuts would cut spending even more. So there’s no “finally” about it. It’s been happening all along, but Republicans have somehow mesmerized the press into never actually saying this.

Aside from that, I wouldn’t take any of this too seriously. “GOP officials,” in this story, are obviously just spinning to make it sound like they don’t have any choice and Obama should just cave now in order to placate the crazy people. It’s probably good negotiating strategy, but that’s all it is.

Drum, however, isn’t all that sure of that:

I mean, is it really a good idea to suggest that the Republican Party intends to shut down the government for “member-management purposes”? If that starts to percolate upward into the kind of news coverage that ordinary people watch, it probably won’t make the GOP look all that great, will it?

Bottom line: (1) Spending has already been cut substantially. (2) Short-term spending shouldn’t be cut anymore because the economy is still fragile. (3) Long-term spending needs to be addressed, but it’s nowhere near as apocalyptic as Republicans like to make it sound. I wonder when the press will start reporting that.

The answer is probably never – that’s not a sexy story. On the other hand, Jonathan Chait tells the story this way:

It is slowly dawning on Washington that, in the wake of the pseudo-apocalyptic drama of the “fiscal cliff,” we are approaching the real thing. That thing is the confluence of two events: the vote to lift the debt ceiling, an occasion of meaningless puffery by the opposition party that House Republicans have weaponized and turned into a genuine threat to the world economy, and the beginning of automatic budget cuts, called sequestration. It is increasingly looking like the final stage in a long-delayed cataclysm that neither party feels able to avoid. At his press conference today, President Obama insisted of House Republicans, “They will not collect a ransom in exchange for not crashing the American economy.” But House Republicans appear more determined than ever to collect their ransom.

In short, Obama dared the Republicans to shoot the hostage, which is daring them to faintly give in completely to that one special group:

The larger issue here is finding mechanisms to cope with the rage of the Tea Party. Republicans took control of the House of Representatives in 2010 filled with wild-eyed fear of runaway socialism and have been gently marched through a series of steps to divert their wrath. At the outset of 2011, they demanded, and received, an immediate federal spending cut, though it quickly proved illusory. This heightened their determination to provoke a confrontation around the debt ceiling vote. President Obama and the Republican leadership managed to delay a crisis by agreeing to a $1.4 trillion spending cut, along with another $1.2 trillion in future deficit reduction, scheduled to begin right about now.

The most conservative members of the House had hoped the expiration of the Bush tax cuts would give them a hostage to threaten against Obama. They acceded to a compromise only sullenly, with promises that the debt ceiling and sequestration would be their real leverage. So the attitude of the House Republican caucus is having been forced to delay for two years their last chance to save America from Greek-Kenyan socialist hell.

The contention of the rightists is that, dangerous though it may be to fail to lift the debt ceiling, it would be more dangerous not to let them impose massive cuts to domestic spending.

Here Chait cites the Politico article:

To the vast majority of House Republicans, it is far riskier long term to pile up new debt than it is to test the market and economic reaction of default or closing down the government. …

That will be a tough sell, says Chris Chocola, president of the conservative Club for Growth. “What’s more irresponsible: continuing on this path to fiscal ruin, or changing the path?” he said. “There is a high level of frustration, and a willingness to do something dramatic. They think this is the only way to get Obama’s attention.”


So that’s the plan – to “do something dramatic” to “get Obama’s attention.” House Republicans have officially adopted the strategic posture of public shooters and unbalanced breakup notes. … Republicans consider the budget deficit so massive and urgent as to be worth provoking economic disaster, but not urgent enough to consider accepting higher revenue as part of a compromise. The fiscal status quo is worse than a potential global meltdown, but even slightly higher revenue is worse than both.

Enter the guy trying to explain the stunningly obvious to the none-too-bright:

Obama’s goal is to steer the next stage of the confrontation toward a grand-bargain-style agreement to reduce the long-term deficit. He is hoping the automatic spending cuts, which disproportionately hurt defense spending, prove intolerable to large segments of the Republican Party. John Boehner has insisted he doesn’t care if those cuts go into effect. But pro-military Republicans are saying they do care, and that they only agreed to vote for sequestration in 2011 in the first place because Boehner promised them it would never happen.

That may be where the real action is:

Sequestration is the murkiest piece of the battlefield. It’s not clear at all what either side is willing to settle for. Both dislike the automatic cuts, but each other’s best alternative is mutually unacceptable – Obama wants to replace the sequester with a mix of higher revenue and cuts to retirement programs, while Republicans want to replace it with all cuts to social spending. In the likely event of gridlock, we don’t know if the two sides would rather just turn off the automatic cuts or let them go into effect.

Nevertheless, the message here is that you might want to think twice about shooting that hostage:

This weekend, administration officials told Paul Krugman what they have told many of us, and what Obama said at his press conference just now: He simply will not let Republicans turn the debt ceiling into a chance to extract policy concessions. It never happened before Obama allowed it in 2011, and were it to become enshrined, it will be not only a permanent ratchet toward the Paul Ryan vision of government but an endless series of Russian roulette games that will ultimately lead to the gun going off.

Many of us have questioned whether Obama will actually follow through on his stated intention. In these games of chicken, he always seems ready to swerve at the last moment. What’s different here is that Obama seems so determined and explicit not to pay a ransom that he is leaving himself no room to backslide. If he pays the ransom, he’ll leave himself humiliated and exposed in a way he never has.

Obama now knows who he’s dealing with:

So the two years Obama and Boehner have spent trying to deflect, delay, and placate the mania of the Tea Party seem to have finally come to an end point.

It’s the Tea Party that likes taking hostages, and Greg Sargent of the Washington Post offers this:

What we’re seeing here is the latest sign that House Tea Partyers are simply not going to be playing any constructive or meaningful role over how to move the country forward and place it on a sounder economic and fiscal footing. Indeed, the Tea Party Express released a statement in response to Obama’s presser that is stunningly out of touch with reality:

“Polls are showing convincingly that Americans want real spending reform that includes thoughtful budget cuts and pro-growth policies. … We would be happy to trade spending cuts with debt ceiling increases if the President were prepared to seriously address the excessive spending he has always promoted.”

Sargent finds that interesting:

Yes, Tea Party Express, the public is on your side, and you are driving this train. You keep right up with that winning message: If you don’t let us gut popular social programs, we’ll destroy the economy.

They’ve been nothing but trouble:

During the fiscal cliff battle, John Boehner had to yank plans for a vote on a deal that would have raised tax rates only on income over $1 million, because that was still unacceptable to the Tea Party. The result: Boehner had no choice but to pass a bill with a lot of Democratic support that raised tax rates on far more income – while the Tea Party looked on from the sidelines.

The same thing may be about to happen again. Indeed, the claims from Tea Party members that they want to go into default to force the White House’s hand only underscore the likelihood that that Boehner will be forced again to pass something with a lot of Democrats.

Perhaps these guys will fade away:

The debt ceiling fight of 2011 represented a kind of zenith (if you can call it that) of Tea Party craziness, intransigence, and hostage taking. Obama lost that battle, but he bounced back and won the presidency. Now, even more so than the fiscal cliff battle, this year’s debt ceiling fight is shaping up as a kind of epic final confrontation – perhaps the Tea Party’s last chance to force Obama to do what the American people emphatically declared in the election that that don’t want, i.e., solve the country’s fiscal problems primarily by dramatically shrinking government, unraveling the safety net, and sparing the rich more sacrifice. And while we should reserve judgment until we see what happens in the end, Obama is certainly behaving like someone who is determined to break the Tea Party once and for all.

That may be what’s happening here – the calm hostage-negotiator pointing out the logical absurdity of the situation to the guy with the gun to the head of the little old lady in the back of the store. You don’t really want to shoot that hostage. Logically, that’s the last thing you want to do, although Paul Waldman adds this:

I think by now all of us, including President Obama, know that these people are serious. But when they say “serious,” they don’t actually mean that they want to seriously confront the nation’s problems without getting distracted by trivial concerns. That’s not the kind of serious they’re talking about. When they say they’re serious and they want Obama’s attention, they mean it in the way that a suicide bomber is serious and wants attention.

Yes, there’s always a bit of righteousness involved. As before, the hostage-taker didn’t want it to come to this, but desperate times call for desperate measures, and they had no other choice – which is to say this wasn’t their fault, but someone else’s, that someone drove them to this. In fact, hostage-takers almost always want to be admired and respected. That no one ever finds them noble seems to surprise them, and Waldman adds this:

Now it could be that this is just gamesmanship, and they’re making these public threats to get a better bargain. But I don’t think so. These people don’t bargain. And there are enough of them in the House that in the end there are really only two choices: either Boehner does what he just did with taxes and allows a vote to raise the debt ceiling and continue funding the government that passes with mostly Democratic support (something he has promised his caucus he won’t do), or we head to disaster.

Put it another way. The logic sinks in and the hostage-taker gives up and meekly surrenders. There was no point to any of it. Or the logic sinks in and the hostage-taker says screw it and shoots the hostage and then himself, and then everyone is dead. Too much logic can be dangerous. Obama must tread carefully. The hostage-negotiator must be careful as hostage-takers do have fragile egos.

But you knew that from the movies. Washington really is Hollywood for ugly people.

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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2 Responses to Dangerous Logic

  1. Rick says:

    Although Obama seems to be doing all the right things, by insisting that Congress unilaterally raise the debt limit, I get the feeling he’s not being forceful enough. When I sent my little email to him last year, I was suggesting that he make clear there will be no, absolutely no, other talks about anything until the limit is raised. This would be so that the other side couldn’t, by default, link raising the limit to other issues. Is Obama doing this? Maybe so, but I haven’t heard it.

    Maybe he wants to leave the door open a crack? He shouldn’t. If he’s going to reject out of hand any Plan B solutions, such as the coin and the 14th amendment, he has to go all out on this. And I don’t get the feeling he’s doing that.

    And, of course, what’s really lost in all this debt-limit controversy is the opportunity to discuss this whole Republican “We don’t have a revenue problem, we have a spending problem” stuff that we keep hearing everyday.

    If we lived in a sane world, wouldn’t Mitch McConnell coming out after his news conference to call on Obama to get “serious about spending” be the perfect time for Obama and the White House to call him out on what should be obvious to everyone is bulllshit? “Yes, we have a spending problem,” they should say, “but it’s not that we’re spending too much, it’s that we’re spending too little!”

    Obama may not just be losing the argument on the crucial, albeit ancillary, issue of raising the debt limit, he is also, by not even engaging in it, losing the underlying argument about what we need to do to fix the economy — and not to mention that, if we were to fix the economy, the so-called “Debt” and “Deficit” crises would likely just disappear on their own.

    What I find incredibly frustrating is that Americans continue to think we need to cut spending — apparently believing that the underlying demands of the Republicans would actually help, rather than hurt, the country — and the Democrats are doing absolutely nothing to push back on this. Incredibly, there’s absolutely no discussion about the underlying economic principles here.

    And if there were this discussion, Americans might realize that the Republicans (especially the Tea Party faction) are actually pushing tax and spending cuts, not as a solution to the so-called problems of the debt and deficit and weak economy, but as an end-in-itself: a government so small that it wouldn’t be able to do what most of us want it to do.

    And by the way, I keep hearing mention that polls say something like 60% of Americans want the debt limit not to be raised? Which is to say that a majority of Americans are either stupid or sociopaths on this issue? How come we don’t hear more specifics about these surveys, assuming they exist?

    So when this particular hostage situation is ever resolved, do we get to put the Republicans in jail?


  2. mike shupp says:

    Uhh… Rick, you’re asking for average Americans to be more sophisticated about politics and economics then they are, on averge, and that’s a whole lot to ask. Moreover, you’re asking that they be much more INTERESTED in politics and the general state of society than they are… which is is even more to ask. And, I got to wonder, if that’s even a wise thing to ask for.

    I mean… in a pretty good world — not perfect, but better that what we have let’s say, most people would get through their lives, holding down jobs, raising kids, watching TV in the evenings, playing some computer games and surfing the internet a bit, keeping touch with the rest of their families, maybe watching a little porn and dreaming about wife swapping and going to Kiwanis meetings. People would have lives, I’m trying to say, without getting excited about left-wing Kenyan politicans intent on taking their guns away or school boards trying to indoctrinate their children with lesbianism and gay-lib politics and Hollywood films where the villains are always guys with jobs and families and the heros are always presented as unemployed bums. In a really happy world, politics wouldn’t matter much and 99.99% of the citizenry would happlly ignore it.

    So we aren’t in that really happy world, but does that mean we should castigate people who would like to live in that world and do their best to believe they live in that world? I don’t think so.

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