Hostage taking and its effects


    are the subject of Paul Krugman’s New York Times column this morning, with the title Obama’s Hostage Deal.  While he acknowledges that Obama obtained more in return for his concessions on the Bush tax cuts for the rich than he (krugman) expected, he remains concerned because

    Mr. Obama has bought the release of some hostages only by providing the G.O.P. with new hostages.

      Krugman raises issues about the timing of the ending of some provisions, the political effects of the impact upon unemployment.  The column is definitely a must read, regardless of where you think you are on this deal as presented by the President.

    Here’s the thing.  I think we have forgotten our own recent history when it comes to hostage taking.   Might I remind people how we got into Iran-Contra?

    For those too young to remember, or who may have forgotten, in theory back in the 1980s under then President Reagan we had a policy of no negotiation with hostage-takers.

    Iranian-backed Shi’ite militants in Lebanon, in the midst of the country’s bitter civil war, were grabbing Westerners as hostages.

    The US had already suffered greatly –  on October 23, 1983 the Marine Barracks in Beirut was destroyed by a truck bomb, killing 241 – mostly Marines, but some Navy and Army personnel as well.  A French installation was hit by a separate truck bomb.

    There were responses by both the US and France, and Hezbollah, a Shi’ite group heavily backed by Iran, was seen as responsible.

    In  1985 Westerners began to be seized by militants, mostly assumed to be Hezbollah, with the understanding being that this was as insurance against further attacks on the group by the US and other Western nations.

    What is important to remember is that while we would not directly deal with the group, the US knew that they were connected with Iran.  Despite the history of taking of hostages from the American Embassy during the Carter administration, the Reagan administration began trading arms to Iran in return for the release of some hostages.  That some in that administration were using funds flowing from this process to help finance the Contras in Nicaragua is incidental to the relevance to today.   What is relevant is that the hostage-takers realized there were benefits to be had, and as some hostages were released others were taken captive.  We had given strong motivation to continue that pattern.

    We have seen s similar pattern in the hostage taking for ransom by the Somali “pirates” seizing ships in the Indian Ocean.

    Let’s return to Krugman’s analysis.  He notes that the deal will provide some stimulus for next year, although not all that much.  But the payroll taxes expire after one year, which means that in 2012 – an election year – there would be less stimulus and a chance of a rise in unemployment.  He reminds us that in 1984 unemployment was the same as it had been in 1980.  But in the earlier year, the direction of unemployment was up, which contributed to Carter’s loss, while in 1984 it was going down, helping with Reagan’s landslide.  While I know the President has said that he would love to have the debate in the 2012 campaign be about taxes, I think it worthwhile to consider these to paragraphs from Krugman:  

    You may say that economic policy shouldn’t be affected by partisan considerations. But even if you believe that – how’s the weather on your planet? – you have to consider the situation likely to prevail a year from now, as the good parts of the Obama-McConnell deal are about to expire. Wouldn’t there be pressure on Democrats to offer Republicans something, anything, to improve economic prospects for 2012? And wouldn’t that be a recipe for another bad deal?

    Surely the answer to both questions is yes. And that means that Mr. Obama is, as I said, paying for the release of some hostages – getting an extension of unemployment benefits and some more stimulus – by giving Republicans new hostages, which they may well use to make new, destructive demands a year from now.

    There is no doubt that the deal in its current format is destructive.  Hell, one can argue that all of the Bush tax cuts are destructive, since those for the bottom 97-98% are several times as high as those for the wealthier.  Still, this is a continuing and deep recession, and there is some justification for continuing at least some of the tax cuts for a while.  But what we do not want to do is give the Republicans hostages for the future.

    What are those future hostages?  How about the future of Social Security and Medicare?  How about anything on unemployment?  How about what is necessary to keep the government operating, raising the debt ceiling?

    The lesson of history is that once you start paying ransom, you have to continue – unless you are willing to go to war.

    We should remember this from earlier in our history.  It was the Barbary “pirates” that seized ships for ransom.  For a while we paid ransom.  Eventually we realized that a different course was necessary, and the Marine Corps participation in the resulting action gave us part of the beginning of our hymn:  to the shores of Tripoli

    And we are seeing other hostages now –   DADT, START –  any time the issue of tax cuts for the rich is pending do we have any doubt that the Republicans will attempt to take everything else hostage to try to move the ball in the direction of making those cuts permanent? And does anyone have any doubt of the next step –  slashing government services and programs, on the grounds that we cannot afford them?

    If the intransigence of the Republicans continues on these matters. we need to place them in context.  Those who took hostages were pirates, terrorists.  Those who take them today should be similarly labeled.  Pirates steal the wealth of others –  Republicans steal the wealth of the American people on behalf of the selfish rich.  Terrorists want to humiliate others and scare them with threats against their loved ones.  Republicans want to humiliate ordinary Americans and scare them with Uhreats against the beloved programs that make up the social safety net – unemployment Insurance, Social Securit, Medicare.   Soon other programs will be included as well –  the Earned Income Tax Credit, permanent indexing of the AMT . . .    I’m sure you can add to this list.

    There may be no choice but to cut some kind of deal now.  But just as the US has the military force to strike back with devastating effect against some hostage takers, now and in the past, so the administration could, if it did not negotiate against itself in public, put much greater pressure upon the Republicans as being responsible for the economic hardship people would be feeling.

    Krugman notes that Obama’s approach, and the timing of the expiration of different aspects of this deal, set up another hostage-taking scenario a year from now.  As a liberal, he also is critical of the ” self-indulgent behavior” demonstrated by the President in his lashing out at the press conference.

    Krugman concludes like this:  

    The point is that by seeming angrier at worried supporters than he is at the hostage-takers, Mr. Obama is already signaling weakness, giving Republicans every reason to believe that they can extract another ransom.

    And they can be counted on to act accordingly.

    Especially given the orientation of the new members of the two Republican Congressional Caucuses.

    How long will the hostage-taking continue?

    What will it cost the nation and the ordinary people?

    IF we are going to draw a line, and perhaps “send in the Marines” when do we make that decision?  

    Can we at least have an honest discussion of the issues that are involved?  All of them?  Not just the short-term?

    Or are we to assume that Obama and his administration, which have made a mess of this, have all the right and the nearly unanimous House Democratic Caucus, which as of now is refusing to even bring up the deal in its current format, are totally wrong, and do not have the interests of the American people at heart?

    Perhaps it is because I know members of the House, across the spectrum of Democrats, and have heard there side of this issue, that I find myself tilting heavily in their direction.

    And perhaps it is because not only does Krugman have a Nobel in Economics, but has been quite accurate in his previous warnings about the economic activities of this administration that I find myself in agreement with this column.

    Or one can remember history – both the history of Americans and hostage-taking, and the history of the actions of the Republican party with respect to economic interests of ordinary Americans over the past 3 decades.

    You cannot satisfy hostage takers by paying ransom.  That only encourages them.

    If you must in the short term to save “lives” you sure as hell had better already organize now to prevent further hostage taking in the future.

    I think this deal gives the Republicans too many hostage opportunities.

    What do you think?

    • teacherken

      I note that yesterday someone said that instead of using the term “hostage taking” it would be more appropriate to use ‘extortion racket”


      my concern remains, along with Krugman, that by giving in now in the way he has Obama has already delivered the next set of hostages.

    • JimWebster

         I spent the first 24 hours in a fit of outrage, agreeing as I mostly do with Krugman. However, after reflection, I have begun to see the positive aspects of the deal. My son, who like Ken teaches social studies in Maryland, reminded me of the compromises needed to write the constitution.

         Politics is compromise by definition, and there always will be something in it one does not like. I heartily endorse the comment by Bob Greenstein, an advocate for the poor and working people who has no peer (confession: I worked with Bob in the Carter Administration). His opening paragraph:


      “The deal between President Obama and Republican leaders on tax cuts and unemployment insurance has two substantial positive aspects:  its surprisingly strong protections for low- and middle-income working families and its stronger-than-expected boost for the economy and jobs.  But it also has two deeply disturbing negative features:  not only the extension of the high-end income-tax cuts, but also an egregious estate-tax giveaway that Senator Jon Kyl demanded for the estates of the wealthiest one-quarter of 1 percent of Americans who die.”

       Full statement at….

    • KathyinBlacksburg

      How bout most of it?

    • Regardless of what we think as Democrats, progressive and/or liberals, about the parts of the “compromise” — this post is an excellent illustration as why I thought the press conference following was such a disaster, and outright irresponsible.

      Although not mentioned here, I know that I don’t appreciate being called “sanctimonious.”  I’m far from ideologically “pure” and I’m pragmatic to the core.  On the other hand, I’ve been active in Dem politics my whole life — Obama wouldn’t be where he is without people like me (and posters here.)  I can disagree with the president without being called names, thank you very much.

      Secondly, and I realize this might not be a popular opinion on a progressive blog, calling the Republicans “hostage takers” was also a mistake.  Republicans have their priorities (and as far as I can tell, from 1980 on, that has been to cut taxes on the wealthy.  Do I agree with this?  NO WAY.  But they certainly have every right to think however they please, and they have every right to fight for their goals and beliefs in every way possible.  Just because they ended up fighting harder than we did doesn’t make them “hostage takers” — it makes them Republicans who were willing to fight.

      There is a lot in this bill that I don’t like.  There have been a lot of decisions that Obama (and Congress) have made that I don’t like.  But can we stop with the name calling and act like the adult we are???

    • Quizzical

      I think Krugman called it hostage-taking to emphasize his point, but to me the analogy isn’t very accurate.

      We are talking about Congress, after all.  I have to chuckle when I hear Republicans talking about “permanent tax cuts”, because that doesn’t mean anything.  What is “permanent” in Congress, especially where tax legislation is concerned? Just because tax rates don’t automatically expire at a certain time, doesn’t mean they are permanent in any sense of the word.  

      Where I think Krugman has a very good point, is that he is critical of passing tax laws or other important laws that have sunset provisions, as a political tactic to “set up” election campaigns, or to create a booby-trap for another Congress or another President.  That’s an act of hubris, and is irresponsible legistating.  For instance, when the Bush Tax Cuts were passed, did anyone consider then that the President and Congress in 2010 might have much more important things to do than fight over whether tax rates had to go up or down in lockstep? The START treaty, for instance, may deserve more attention than it is getting.  I suspect our country is past the point where our government can spend time and money without regard for the consequences.