Friday, August 5, 2011

Shoot the People Who Ignored the Message

(Updated thrice below)

Before you start screaming at Standard & Poor's for downgrading U.S. debt for the first time in history, remember this: they warned G.O.P. leaders, very specifically, that U.S. credit ratings were at serious risk of downgrade EVEN IF the debt ceiling was lifted. In fact, S&P warned on July 14, and then reiterated on July 15, that a deal in the $1-2 trillion range (like the one that was enacted) would be insufficient, and kicking the can down the road (as the "Joint Committee" does) would be insufficient, and a deal that doesn't demonstrate that the G.O.P. is a serious partner in bending the debt curve (i.e., one that doesn't contain immediate new revenues as a sign of "seriousness") would be insufficient.

[Update, Aug. 5, 10:33 PT: full text of S&P's two "downgrade" press releases can be read at this link.]

On July 15, I wrote the following for PoliticusUSA:
The credit-rating agency Standard & Poors has released a statement that says, among other things, that merely raising the debt ceiling is not enough to prevent a downgrade of the United States’ credit rating, triggering market instability and causing the interest rate on U.S. debt to skyrocket.
On July 18, I expanded on S&P's warnings in a piece for Alternet:
Late Thursday, the credit-rating agency Standard & Poor's released a statement announcing that merely raising the debt ceiling will not be enough to prevent a downgrade of the United States' credit rating for the first time in seventy years, potentially causing the interest rate on both government and private debt to skyrocket and destabilizing the entire economy. Remarkably, the statement also prescribed the specific numbers and conditions that would allow the U.S. to avoid such a catastrophe: to ensure a stable credit rating, any deal between Obama and the Republicans must reduce debt by $4 trillion, should include some "mix" of spending cuts and tax increases, and must involve concessions by both sides (a strong hint that the G.O.P. must consider closing tax loopholes, as well as a repudiation of Eric Cantor's assertion that merely attending negotiations is the only concession the GOP intends to make).

In short, Standard & Poor's has put G.O.P. lawmakers on notice that if they take the easy way out instead of making the "Grand Bargain" that Obama has advocated for, including tax increases, they may be responsible for disrupting the U.S. economy.

The S&P statement clearly states that merely raising the debt ceiling, or implementing a deficit-reduction package in the $1-2 trillion range, will not be enough to prevent a costly rating downgrade, because it would show that the country is not serious about tackling the deficit....

And on July 19, here on VichyDems, I discussed S&P's July 15 warning, which neither I nor any MSM reported had noticed immediately:
A Standard & Poor's report dated July 15, the day after it threatened to downgrade U.S. debt if a debt-bending deal is not reached, underscores what I've been writing about: that merely lifting the debt ceiling, or authorizing a so-called "Debt Commission" to propose further spending cuts by the end of the year, is not enough to ensure that U.S. debt is not downgraded to AA status, with enormous "knock-on" effects to the rest of the economy.

I don't blame S&P for doing its job (identifying borrowers that are no longer as reliable as they used to be). Does anyone on Earth believe the U.S. is, indeed, as safe and reliable a borrower as it was in, say, 1999, when we had both a balanced budget and enough of a budget surplus to begin re-investing in education and infrastructure? In fact, by trying to warn U.S. politicians of the problem and avoid a downgrade, S&P was actually bucking pressures to aggressively downgrade flimsy AAA debtors, because there's currently far too much false AAA debt in the market right now. (That fact also answers the correct but irrelevant complaint that S&P and the other major credit-rating agencies contributed to the bad economy by failing to correctly identify the riskiness of AAA-rated mortgage-backed securities in the past. True, the agencies blew that call -- but the lesson they (properly) learned is to not take healthy-looking debtors at face value. A wise agency, burned once by a AAA credit bubble, should be more willing to downgrade AAA debt in the future -- exactly as S&P has just done.)

Standard & Poor's is just the messenger. It did exactly what it said it would do (and tried to avoid doing). The House G.O.P. is who refused to endorse a "clean bill" early, before S&P became an issue; the House G.O.P. is who refused to accept the "Great Compromise" that both Obama and S&P clearly wanted; the House G.O.P. is who refused to accept any new revenues in the immediate deal (though new revenues starting in 2013 are embedded in the plan), thereby showing S&P that they were not (in S&P's word) "serious."

Don't shoot the messenger. Shoot the people who ignored the message.

UPDATE, Aug. 5, 7:00 pm PT: Harry Reid, at least, is seeing the political leverage this provides; his office just issued the following statement:

Washington, D.C.- Nevada Senator Harry Reid issued the following statement following the decision by S&P to downgrade the U.S. credit rating from AAA to AA+:

“The action by S&P reaffirms the need for a balanced approach to deficit reduction that combines spending cuts with revenue-raising measures like closing taxpayer-funded giveaways to billionaires, oil companies and corporate jet owners. This makes the work of the joint committee all the more important, and shows why leaders should appoint members who will approach the committee’s work with an open mind - instead of hardliners who have already ruled out the balanced approach that the markets and rating agencies like S&P are demanding.”

UPDATE, Aug. 8, 2011: Standard & Poor's held a conference call this morning to explain its decision. Full audio of that call can be found here, as well as an excerpted clip of S&P's global Managing Director of Sovereign Debt Ratings saying that S&P's "upside scenario" is for the Bush tax cuts on the wealthy to expire. That alone, said S&P, would restore the U.S. rating from "outlook negative" to "outlook stable."


Tuesday, August 2, 2011

The Democrats' Powerful Negotiating Advantage

Some otherwise-savvy people are obsessing on how awful the debt ceiling/budget-bending deal is, and are especially hung up on the fact that the Deal contains no new taxes (whether cast as "new revenues," "canceling tax expenditures," "revenue increases," "closing loopholes," "tax reform," etc.). In reality, however, the Deal not only has new taxes embedded in it, but it's slanted heavily to the Democrats' advantage in future negotiations. Both the new taxes and the negotiating advantage are so obvious to me that I almost suspect some Progressives feel such a disconnect between the nearly infinite promise Obama displayed in the heady days of 2008, and his actual, imperfect performance when confronted with the actual demands of office, that they are emotionally unable to admit that, this time around, Obama may have negotiated a really good deal for Democrats.

Don't get me wrong: I agree wholeheartedly that, emotionally, this doesn't FEEL like a good deal for Democrats. But as Stephen Colbert explained brilliantly in his very first show, it's conservatives who make decisions based on how the truthiness feels; if liberals have anything going for them, it's the ability to understand and accept truth even when it doesn't feel like truth. So, as a professional mediator who trusts that liberal prefrontal cortices are beefier than liberal amygdalas, let me try to explain why Democrats are in a pretty darn good negotiating position right now:

Let's start with the reasonable assumption that Congress doesn't have the stomach to get into a huge new budget/tax brouhaha before the Joint Committee created by the so-called "Satan Sandwich" has a chance to meet and make its recommendations. (Avoiding such a fight is why Congress punted to a committee in the first place.) That means that the Committee's likely outcome is the main variable affecting the final outcome.

There are three broad options available to the Joint Committee: a mutual agreement that may affect entitlements but also raises taxes; a deadlock; or a Democratic cave-in. (Note that I didn't consider a G.O.P. cave-in; it's not their style.) Let's look at each option in turn:

OPTION ONE: The Committee does its job and agrees on a mutually-painful package of additional spending cuts (possibly including entitlement "reforms" of some kind) plus tax reforms, including closing loopholes and canceling tax expenditures, to increase revenues.

Liberals will disagree about whether any Democratic concessions were reasonable, and it is entirely possible that the Democratic negotiators will surrender too-large cuts to social programs or entitlements -- but any deal that raises taxes unquestionably will infuriate the GOP's Tea Party base and would seriously compromise its ability to demagogue budgets/deficits/Big Gubmint in the 2012 election. Regardless of how the Democratic base feels about Democratic concessions, any deal that allows the Dems to claim equal credit for fiscal responsibility, while stoking Tea Partiers into apoplexy over the GOP "traitors" who've whored away their tax-purity pledge, would be so palatable to independents (and bond-rating agencies) and so destabilizing to Republicans that Obama would almost be guaranteed reelection and Nancy Pelosi could well be restored to the Speaker's chair.

That's why I've referred to even a tiny tax increase as a "wafer thin mint": the GOP's House majority would explode if they brooked it. And if Dems control the House, then under the Constitution they get to initiate all spending, and the remaining nine years of this illusory "ten year plan" would suffer terminal defenestration.

Option One: net win for Democrats.

OPTION TWO: The Republican delegates to the Joint Committee refuse to do anything that the Tea Party might construe as "raising taxes." The Democratic delegates refuse to do anything liberals might consider harmful to entitlements. Both sides hang tough. The Joint Committee stalemates.

In the event of a stalemate, the "triggers" set forth in the Satan Sandwich automatically go into effect. Those cuts hit both sides -- but they don't hit Democrats in any vital organs. In fact, in electoral terms, they hurt Republicans more than they do Democrats.

(I don't want to get bogged down in discussions of cuts here, but in brief: the "triggers" include nasty cuts in domestic discretionary spending -- but, under the explicit terms of the Deal, Social Security and Medicare are exempt from those cuts, except for a 2% reduction in payments to providers, who primarily are a Republican constituency. But while the Democrats' key constituencies among Social Security and Medicare recipients would be relatively undisturbed, key Republican constituencies -- defense contractors and Tea Party-dense, military-dependent communities located primarily in conservative states and districts -- will be subjected to deep, automatic cuts.)

But the action's not on the cuts side of the equation, folks: it's on the revenues side. Republican negotiators entered the debt ceiling negotiations under the assumption that current tax rates were the baseline for measuring the next decade's tax impacts. If a deal simply continued current rates for the next ten years, it was "revenue neutral" in their eyes.

But that's not what current law says! Current law slates the 2001 and 2003 Bush tax cuts to expire at the end of 2012. What Republicans considered a "tax neutral" baseline actually would have been a huge tax cut when compared to the rates current law prescribes from 2013 forward. And that, in a nutshell, is why Obama and Boehner couldn't agree on a deal that raised taxes today: they don't even agree on what ruler to use.

But the law is the law, and the truth is the truth: if Congress is so dysfunctional that it does absolutely nothing but name post offices between now and 2013, tax rates will increase dramatically. Obama didn't need to gain a single concession from the Republicans in order to win "new revenues"; to both prevent a Presidency-jeopardizing economic collapse and win the "new revenues" he said he wanted, all he needed to do was exit the negotiations with a deal that prevented the nation from default and left current law in place.

Let me repeat that, because people don't seem to realize its importance: Current law slates the 1991 and 1993 Bush tax cuts to expire at the end of 2012. Obama didn't need to gain a single concession from the Republicans in order to win "new revenues" -- all he needed to do was exit the negotiations with a deal that prevented the nation from default and left current law in place.

Which, of course, is what this deal does.

So here's what Option Two (Joint Committee deadlocking) really does: it imposes spending cuts on both domestic spending that Democrats favor and defense spending that Republicans fetishize; it nevertheless protects the entitlements that are totemic to the Dem base; in electoral terms, it gores the Republicans' ox more than the Democrats'; and it results in automatic, across-the-board tax increases totaling roughly $3.5 trillion over the next decade.

Option Two: win for Dems.

[UPDATE, 8/3: Dave Weigel confirms here and here that the bill itself mandates current law, not current rates, as the baseline. See comments for discussion of some interesting, I think unintentional, consequences of this.]

It's hard to imagine even the most azure canine conservaDem not getting giggly over this kind of negotiating advantage. If the Committee reaches agreement that includes tax hikes, the GOP loses its base. If the Committee deadlocks, taxes return to pre-Bush levels and the budget balances itself in just a few years. Those are two very good outcomes for Dems.

Or, of course, there's what the Left's Cassandras expect to happen:

OPTION THREE: The Republican delegates to the Joint Committee demand both spending cuts and entitlement "reforms" that painfully cut benefits to the poor and the elderly. The Democratic delegates ask for tax hikes in return, but the Republicans steadfastly refuse. Despite the clear advantages that simply announcing "hung jury" would bring them, the Democratic delegates instead simply cave in.

There's no real reason why they would cave in, except for the fact that (as Paul Krugman keeps saying and Glenn Greenwald has painstakingly cataloged) Obama and those in his camp actually are closet Republicans who love spending cuts and know nothing about John Maynard Keynes and don't believe in fiscal stimulus and have decorated their private bathrooms with little framed cocktail napkins signed by Arthur Laffer and probably agreed with Ralph Nader back in 2000 that there was no difference between Al Gore and George Bush and, I suppose, think that John Kerry really was a coward in Vietnam, too. [UPDATE 8/03: In fairness to GG and PK, yes, I'm speaking hyperbolically -- but not as hyperbolically as I wish.]

In this view, it's a given that the Democratic delegates will give away the farm in exchange for absolutely nothing of value, because that's what Krugman and the folks at FireDogLake say Obama Dems always do. Option Three is inevitable, because Democrats suck and Obama is governing "to the right of Richard Nixon" and his supporters are "the dumbest motherfuckers in the world." And then, even though Barack Obama retains the power to veto a bill that gives the Republicans everything and the Democrats nothing, he doesn't veto it. Because, again, he's a terrible negotiator who secretly hates liberal ideals anyway.

Option Three: Democrats suck, and (as the Teapartiers have said all along, but in reverse) Obama's a Manchurian candidate bent on selling us out, so of course the Republicans win, as always. Sigh.


Of course, the endgame probably won't be decided by the Joint Committee at all. The Committee will meet and issue a report, but there's plenty of time for the parties to negotiate a different compromise after the Committee reports but before either the automatic triggers or the automatic tax hikes go into effect. And there's some legitimate fear, based on Obama's past less-than-steely negotiating history over the public option and the last extension of the Bush tax cuts, that here is where a bad deal for Democrats may be made.

But the contours of any alternative agreement will be shaped by the likely outcomes of the "triggers" scenario -- what we mediators call the Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement, or BATNA. In other words, neither party is likely to negotiate an agreement that's worse than the outcome of NOT reaching an agreement.

Under the deal President Obama just negotiated, Democrats' BATNA is a survivable set of spending cuts, a diminished Pentagon budget that hurts Republican home states and districts, automatic tax hikes that almost guarantee a balanced budget in less than a decade (reinforcing the Democratic narrative that, as Bill Clinton showed, Democratic Presidents are better fiscally than Republican ones), and a Republican base that's furious -- as an election looms -- at its own representatives for allowing those tax hikes to occur.

With a good BATNA like that, even poor Democratic negotiators almost can't help but cut a good deal for themselves. And (flipping around and looking at things from the other perspective), with a lousy BATNA like theirs, even the hardest-nosed, most regressive Republican negotiators have little choice but to accept some sort of spanking -- for instance, by letting Dems raise taxes on the richest Americans while preserving low tax rates for the middle class.

Yes, Option Three might happen -- if D.C. Dems are the utter fools a few pundits claim them to be. And if they let themselves be beaten that badly as this plays out, I'll be among the first to label them fools.

But Options One or Two are far, far, FAR more likely. And instead of wrapping themselves in sackcloth and ashes, crying in woe and beating themselves up for their leaders' factitious sins, Progressives would be wiser to join ranks and work together to pressure Reid and Pelosi with one simple, bridge-building demand: that the Democratic side of the Joint Committee be represented by reasonably intelligent liberals who understand how much leverage their President has given them in this deal -- and have the toughness to play out that good hand.


Why It's a NOUGAT-FILLED Satan Sandwich

Yes, the Deal is clumsy and unsatisfying, kicks the can down the road, and is an embarrassment to a supposedly functional democracy -- a "sugar-coated Satan sandwich." But it's still a Democratic win, because it leaves the probability of Republicans, suicidally, at election time, either agreeing to tax hikes (in the Joint Committee) or allowing tax hikes to happen (by letting the Joint Committee deadlock, causing all Americans' taxes to increase automatically).

That is, it's a Democratic win IF progressives can keep their sh*t together, stop the idiotic and nonproductive internecine warfare between so-called Firebaggers and Obamabots, and pull together to demand that the Joint Committee include true Democrats who'll hold firm rather than Blue Dogs and Vichies who'll surrender on the electorally all-important new revenues issue.

Here, in a highly sophisticated graphical format developed after over one minute of communications-strategy research and diligent labor, is why the Satan Sandwich contains a nummy, pro-Democrat nougat center: