Third World on the Potomac

What's the mark of a Third World country? I've seen a lot of them, and to me the clearest trait is the squalor of the public realm.

The rich people in your standard dictatorship/kleptocracy of course do just fine. But anything that's public -- schools, museums, roads, hospitals, legal system and courts, customs office and civil service -- is either run down or corrupt. If you had to trade places with the top level of a "bad" country, you'd be OK. But if you had to rely on the public facilities, you'd be in trouble -- as their people are.

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Which somehow comes to mind as the U.S. Government prepares to shut down. Two tiny little anecdotes of impending Third World-ism in Washington:

- Yesterday I met a senior diplomat from a very large and important country. (Hint: I write about it a lot, and used to live there. Also, it has pandas.) A very senior delegation from that country is scheduled to meet this coming week with a very senior U.S. official. (Hint: her husband used to be president.) This meeting has been in the works for months, and involves areas of cooperation, as in energy research or policy toward Iran and North Korea, and of disagreement as well. These are talks that should be held and business that needs to be done.

But if the U.S. government is shut down, the meeting can't happen, because the State Department will be officially "closed" except for emergency functions. The delegation is set to leave from this other country's capital at just about the same time as the shutdown deadline. If they don't take off -- and the shutdown's averted, they'll miss their meetings. If they do take off and the shutdown occurs, the trip will be an (embarrassing) waste. The diplomat was sweating bullets: would he have to call them on the runway and say: Sorry, this government has been up and running since 1787, but it's out of business now?

- I have relatives who live in Saudi Arabia. A large group of high schoolers, including their son, from an international school in Riyadh is excited about their upcoming spring trip to Washington, which begins this weekend. For many it will be their first view of the United States. And they will find: Smithsonian museums closed. National Zoo closed. DC trash collectors furloughed. No parking-law enforcement (well, there's a bright side). The kinds of things one associates with ... the third world.

I could wrap this up with a little "Can't we all just along?" homily. But the truth is, it's not a question of nicely splitting the differences. One side of this dispute -- the House Republican majority, especially the 80+ freshman -- is spoiling for a showdown and shutdown that not even their titular leader Mr. Boehner wants. They'll hurt themselves politically, as their forebear Newt Gingrich did 16 years ago. But in the meantime they take the rest of us down with them.

(Illustration of fare card from DC Metro, which will stay open, via site of the Smithsonian, which will not.)

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

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