False Equivalence: It's Worse Than We Think

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Mike Lofgren, long-time Republican Senate staffer and author of The Party Is Over, says that both Jonathan Chait and I went too easy on the Washington Post editorial that presented an "all sides are to blame! please stop the posturing!" perspective on the sequestration stand-off. He writes:

It's worth pointing out that the partisan positions on deficit reduction which the Washington Post refuses to acknowledge are even worse than the mere binary choice of some spending cuts and some increased revenue versus all spending cuts and no increased revenue. As more than one House-passed "sequester avoidance bill" in the previous Congress has made clear, it is not just that the GOP wants all deficit reduction to be accomplished by spending cuts alone. It is that the GOP would prefer all deficit reduction to be borne by domestic spending alone through exempting the Pentagon. That is even more stark, don't you think?
 
An intriguing side note of this issue is Panetta's, the Joint Chiefs' and other Pentagon officials' wolf-crying to the effect that reducing the Pentagon budget from $600 billion to $550 billion "invites aggression" or leaves the US "vulnerable to coercion." Given the current partisan dynamic in Washington that I described in the previous paragraph, which party are Obama's own appointees objectively aiding?

And from another reader:

I understand the core of your false equivalence jihad.  But you are stretching it here.  Your use of "DC centrist" position as a benchmark means you are anchoring "truth" to political insider argument.  I happen to agree with  that position on this issue, but a wide range of approaches are very reasonable in this discussion.  There has been some tax increase, and some spending reductions since the base-line everyone quotes.  It is completely fair to debate whether or not the "DC centrist" position is in fact correct, and it is wrong to assume that a group that is farther from that position is "wrong." There is a reason economics is called the dismal science; unfortunately it often describes the effectiveness of predictions by economists (yes, I know that is not really the genesis of the saying).
 
We are in pretty unique economic times.  Out of the crisis.  In a recovery, which is very slow and uneven.  Profits and the stock market are up, unemployment seems stuck at 8%.  Small business are selling out in number you would not expect in a recovery. The federal government's share of the economy, and its debt level, are both at high points for most of the century.  Debate ranging from "it should be all taxes" to "it should all be spending cuts" is, unfortunately, all worth exploring.  Even if  neither extreme answer could win politically, it does not preclude a reasoned discussion on both points.  False equivalence exists, but let's not use it just because something is outside of opinion consensus.  Let's use it when it is outside of facts.  After all, there was a time that a strong consensus existed that the sun orbited the earth.

Fair points. But Chait anticipated them in his original item. Of course you could argue for a range of responses to fiscal problems: spending cuts only, tax cuts only, a mixture of the two, even no response at all. 

That's not what is happening here. The Post's editorial page clearly favors the mixed approach, which Chait labels "D.C. centrism." But when only one of the parties embraces that view, the Post appears to feels awkward saying so, lest it seem partisan. Instead it strikes a "false equivalent" stance of saying everyone is to blame for a big mess. That's why the subhead on Chait's item was "People Who Agree With Obama But Have to Pretend Otherwise."

For a clarifying comparison: I'm not a big fan of the WSJ's ed-page operation, but I would never accuse them of false equivalence. Same with Fox News.

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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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