Saturday, July 30, 2011

Hostage Crisis

[note: this image made more sense with the original title, “America Pulls a Boehner,” and it's still too good not to keep; courtesy of superdickery, though I'm sure owned by DC]

DI: Last year, Obama used the metaphor of a hostage crisis for the Republican negotiation over the Bush tax cuts. He ended up relenting, because he wasn’t willing to let them hurt the hostage, when the hostage was the American people. But you’ve dealt with some real-world hostage situations, so I’d like to get your opinion on this latest negotiation.

B: I don’t negotiate hostage crises; I end them.

DI: Probably by breaking through a hostage taker’s skylight then kicking them until they go to prison.

B: In a nutshell.

DI: Do you provide the nutshell, or do Gotham’s hostage-takers provide their own?

B: Clever.

DI: I have my moments.

B: But there have been circumstances where I’ve had to negotiate. It’s a favorite tactic of the Riddler, making sure he and his victims are hidden somewhere, so I have to deal with him remotely. It’s the only way he could ever get me to play his games at first.

DI: At first?

B: We came to an understanding about ten years ago: he stopped kidnapping people and I agreed to solve one of his riddles a month.

DI: So you enabled his lunacy. Wonderful.

B: The Riddler’s obsessive and compulsive, but not violently insane in the same way as someone like the Joker. All he really cared about was his puzzles, and one time, as I was taking him to the police, frustrated, I asked, “Next time can’t we just skip to the part that you care about?” And he laughed. But then he thought about it, and asked if I was offering what it sounded like I was offering. And I hadn’t been, but now that we were both thinking about it, it made a weird kind of sense.

Because he’d been terrorizing innocent people needlessly. He didn’t want a ransom. And he never actually hurt his hostages. He just wanted to play the game.

DI: But given that you negotiated with terrorists

B: Actually, you’ll note that I negotiated an end to the terrorism.

DI: But at the time he was a terrorist and you negotiated- and that makes President Bush cry- so what would you say of the current stalemate?

B: Well, first, looking back at the first hostage negotiation, Obama was being stupid. I think his metaphor fails, in that we weren’t talking about really hurting the American people, just whether or not some of them paid marginally higher taxes- at the rate they paid them under Clinton. Regardless, he did the worst thing possible: he caved- which only encourages more hostage-taking.

By contrast, I think the current debt ceiling negotiations, and maybe to a lesser extent the budget fight earlier this year, are closer to hostage negotiations. Because the debt ceiling allows us to pay for services that really will hurt Americans who lose them. And unlike taxes, which have a large lobby constantly agitating against them, those Americans tend not to have powerful political allies. So damage done to those Americans could well end up permanent.

DI: Then what do you think of the debt ceiling bill Boehner got passed in the House?

B: I liked Jonathan Chait’s description of the Boehner ‘deal’: “it's like a kidnapper demanding for the release of your child $100,000 and your other child.” Because Boehner’s deal extracts cuts without revenue, but then ensures that there will be another debt ceiling standoff in six months’ time.

This may be the reason that, according to CNN, the House plan championed by Speaker Boehner would likely lead to a downgrade of US credit from Standard and Poor’s, while the Senate plan championed by Harry Reid wouldn’t. [note: the Reid plan offers a ceiling extension that should see us to 2013]. We’ll see, I suppose, in the next few days, if that does anything to change the debate. I suspect not. John Boehner’s been painted into a corner. I suspect he’s not long for this political world; he was barely able to craft a bill that mustered Republican support in the House, but it’ll never make it through the Democratic Senate. His options now seem to be to throw his speakership under the bus to vote with the Democrats, or to try to preserve his speakership by tacking right, which means not voting for whatever compromise comes out of the Senate, and means the Republicans get hammered for the consequences and probably lose their majority and the speakership anyway.

Not that I’ll lament his loss. In attempting to sell his bill to the House, Boehner called the other options default or giving Obama a blank check. Now, I hate to go against Hanlon’s razor, but I can’t believe that the Speaker of the House misunderstands government so badly. The President doesn’t spend money- he executes the laws as passed by the Congress. Spending- the power of the purse- that’s Congress. The Congress, one half of which Boehner “leads,” set spending levels. Which makes it either blatant propaganda or criminal stupidity.

DI: You’ve placed a lot of people under citizen’s arrest in your time. Ever for stupidity?

B: I’ve caught a lot of people because of stupidity, but that was never the charge.

DI: You’ve been a pretty passionate proponent for raising the debt ceiling, even when a majority of Americans were against it.

B: I think most Americans are busy. They don’t want government to be a major thing in their lives- because they’d rather do something else, work, spend time with friends, family, just screwing around. So most Americans don’t pay a lot of attention to politics until it’s something important, something that gets in their face and demands attention. So the fact that most people didn’t understand what the debt ceiling was, I think accounts for most of the change in polls. But selling the increase - explaining why I’ve favored it, beyond what could go wrong- is a different thing. And I’ve said it before, but it’s about a different vision of the country.

Let me ask you a question: do you like our country? Right now, looking around, at the state of our roads, at the state of our national parks, at the state of our national security apparatus. Do you like this country, and want it to be able to continue at this level?

DI: Generally speaking, yeah. At least at this level.

B: Okay, these are the things our government spends money on. But how about the things you may not like, that the government isn’t doing as well with: the state of our schools, our crumbling infrastructure, high unemployment, the fact that seniors are edging closer to poverty as a group- these are all things that will require more spending in the future. Not unlimited spending- in some cases, like infrastructure, just a down payment- but increases over what we spend now.

I think most Americans are fairly happy with the country today. So I don’t understand that zealousness on the part of conservatives to take apart something we value.

DI: But you’re a dangerous socialist.

B: I’m a liberal. And maybe in the Europe I’d be a social democrat. I’ve never tried to hide that. And yes, personally, I’d favor robust government spending, to put us back on top of the world in education and technology, which is quite honestly where we belong. We’re the richest country in the world, and we still have an opportunity to cement our place at the head of that table; to me, that’s an America to dream about. It would require higher taxes- but if we made serious efforts to make the tax code fair- and I’m talking about treating all income equally, not the Orwellianly named ‘fair’ tax- it wouldn’t require a lot of sacrifice, either. To the average American, it would be more than worth it, to know that Medicare and Social Security were going to be there for them, and their kids.

But let me be clear: that’s not what I’m advocating here. I’m saying that, at a minimum, we should be trying to keep America strong. We don’t have to be the best. But we shouldn’t be willing to watch our nation slide further and further away from being the center of innovation, growth and prosperity. We’re still about as rich as the EU, but every day we fall further behind on the education and technology curves- and the further we fall back, the harder it is to regain position.

We should be looking for ways to ensure our nation’s stability and prosperity going into the future. We shouldn’t be looking to cut benefits for the elderly, while maintaining tax cuts for the oil industry. Those kinds of trade offs just don’t make sense.

DI: So how do you feel about the Reid plan?

B: The Reid plan isn’t wonderful. It has its flaws, namely a pretty large reduction in the government’s ability to protect its citizens. It does attack the deficit, and on that front it’s remarkably like the Beohner plan, both in how much gets cut and how quickly. So it tries to have the least effect during the downturn, which is a plus.

DI: So what’s so bad about the Boehner plan, then?

B: To get it out of the House, Boehner had to make the ceiling increase, or a second one, since he cuts a Reid sized increase in two, contingent upon passage of a balanced budget amendment. We’ve discussed how pointless such an amendment is, and this provision guaranteed that it could never even be considered by the Senate.

The thrust of the problem with a balanced budget amendment is it’s unenforceable, so it’s a rule which would only keep honest politicians honest.

DI: So the same way that, say, gun control only keeps honest gun owners honest?

B: One can of worms at a time.

And maybe I’m being cynical here, but I think Democrats have learned from pay as you go rules that they will try to live within the system, but Republicans won’t. Republicans, you’ll recall, got rid of pay as you go rules as soon as they took the House, and replaced them with cut as you go rules. The irony of which is that the party now obsessed with debt and deficits changed the rules to make it even easier to increase both.

But the other problem with Boehner’s plan we already mentioned. It’s the reason I think S & P has talked about downgrading our credit even if we pass the Boehner plan: it sets this whole hostage crisis back up again in six months. And even if we managed to talk the crazy people off the ledge this time, that doesn’t mean that next time we’ll be so lucky. In fact, since they’re likely to view this as a loss, and I speak from a long history with vengeful crazy people, they’re likely to be crazier, and more likely to throw us all off the ledge next time.

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