Monday, December 6, 2010

How Negotiation Works

Here are the president's comments on the deal worked out today on taxes: 

I am a little tired of thinking and writing about this issue, but I am even more tired of reading the media coverage which is much too preoccupied with trying to figure out which party gains politically and which party loses; who wins and who caves.

What this looks like to me, as someone who spends a lot of time negotiating settlements of legal disputes, is a "win-win" settlement.  That means neither side got exactly what they wanted, but both sides were able to satisfy important interests.  And the alternative to this deal would have meant failure for everyone, because both sides were agreed that they wanted to preserve tax breaks for the middle class, and if they couldn't resolve this issue, then all of the Bush tax breaks, including those for the middle class, would have expired at the end of the year.  To avoid that, they had to extend millionaires' tax breaks for two more years, but in return Republicans agreed to substantial additional tax breaks for working families.  In addition, the negotiators won a thirteen month extension of unemployment benefits.  (Ezra Klein's summary today of what he called an imperfect, but not bad deal, is here.) (My somewhat pessimistic predictions of a few weeks ago, expressing some doubt that the parties would be able to work this issue out like grown-ups, can be found here.)   All in all, this is an impressive stimulus plan that will help get the economy moving again, which seems more important than trying to score political points about whether rich people have been getting too big a break on taxes for the past ten years.  (They have, ok, but we will just have to deal with that problem a little later.)

What may be even more important and impressive is just the fact of being able to make a deal at all, and especially one that satisfies the most important interests of both parties.  That is a rebuke to those on both the left and right who would prefer to fight, rather than negotiate, with the other side, even if that means gridlock and failure.  To achieve that kind of result in the wake of a highly polarizing election, is something we should feel proud of.  Maybe others were expecting something different, but I supported the Obama campaign mainly because he promised to bring interest-based negotiation (that might be a technical term for what in politics we should just call representative democracy), to Washington, instead of partisan gridlock.  Today, once again, President Obama delivered on that promise.


  1. Also a negotiator, I understand where you're coming from. However, I have to say it razzes me to no end that unemployment benefits were traded off against tax breaks for the rich. There is something really immoral about that.

    Here in Arizona, however, it's even worse. Our Republican legislators made an announcement that they are opposing an extension of unemployment because it's more important to balance the budget. Judging on the success of SB 1070 running our Hispanic population out of the state (I have it on the best of City of Phoenix authority that an entire new Congressional district's worth of Hispanics have left the city because it is so uncomfortable to be Hispanic here), perhaps the goal is to run the unemployed out of town while we're at it.

  2. I'm not sure it's a good idea to inject morality into taxation. It's really a question of fairness more than morality. But if you're talking morality, my tax professor in law school thought the whole idea of progressive taxation was immoral--he thought it was just a scheme to redistribute income from people who had justly earned it to people who did not deserve it.

    I don't agree with that, or maybe I think we should redistribute income more than we do, but I do find it interesting how worked up people get about tax rates, even though we were only debating the difference between a 39% marginal tax rate and a 35% marginal tax rate. The distinction between the two seems insignificant to me, and I'm not sure I understand how anyone can say one rate is much more moral than the other.

  3. It is disgraceful for a president to make the following remarks:

    “It’s tempting not to negotiate with hostage takers unless the hostage gets harmed… In this case, the hostage was the American people.”

    I thought he was going to unite us?

  4. He is going to unite the American people (the hostage) against the 40 or so Republican obstructionists in the Senate (the hostage takers), who keep trying to thwart the will of the people!

  5. The Taliban take hostages. al Qaeda takes hostages. A political party? What happened to hope and change? Is the language of violence going to solve anything? Does it calm nerves and reach compromise?

    The American people united against Obama's part a month ago, btw. Just saying that a president should not use this type of language, ever.

  6. It's a metaphor, and it seems to me a particularly apt one. And nobody was calling the Republicans terrorists, only hostage takers. There is a difference. And Al Qaeda and the Taliban do not take hostages.

    How do you justify Senate Republicans filibustering practically every presidential appointment, even ones that are not opposed, and filibustering practically every single bill in the Senate? How do you justify all of the name-calling and nastiness by the Sean Hannitys and Rush Limbaughs and Sarah Palins and Glenn Becks? If I were Obama, I'd probably be a lot more frustrated, and would be calling the Senate Republicans a lot worse names. The thing you should be amazed at is how cool and calm the President remains, and how he defuses every situation. But sometimes you just have to call it like you see it, and calling the Senate Republicans hostage takers seems a pretty fair analogy to me.

  7. Actually, the Taliban just released a video of their hostage Spc. Bowe Bergdahl.

    Filibustering is a different topic, and one we could discuss, but it is different from a U.S. president calling another political party "hostage takers." He also called them "bomb throwers."

    Both Democrats and Republicans have used the filibuster.

    And I don't think Obama is all that cool, what with this headline:

    Angry Obama defends tax compromise

  8. I stand corrected, as you have reminded me that the Taliban does sometimes take hostages. But terrorism and hostage taking are still different things, unless the hostage takers kill the hostage, which does sometimes happen.

    Filibustering is NOT a different topic. It is the same topic. When the president was talking about the Republican minority in the Senate holding Americans hostage, what he was referring to was the filibuster. You are right that both parties have used the filibuster, but nobody has ever in history used the filibuster so routinely as the Republicans in this session of Congress have used it.