False Equivalence: The Master Class

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False equivalence. My heart sinks, as does yours, at the mere sight of these words. But just when I was ready to post a picture of a great new beer -- from Utah! -- plus some interesting/alarming Chinese news, I made the mistake of reading the lead editorial in the Washington Post today. Oh boy. I realize it would be false equivalence of its own rococo triple-backflip variety to avoid mentioning the most classic case yet. I'll try to move through it quickly.

Reminder about the concept: The essence of the false-equivalence mindset is the reflexive assumption that "reality" is halfway between whatever two contending sides assert. Maybe that reflects early immersion in the Goldilocks saga. ("This one is too big. That one is too small. This one is just right!") Maybe it's a holdover from the age of Walter Cronkite. Perhaps it's the D.C. worthy-person's mantra, familiar from conferences and talk shows, that "partisans on both sides" are the main threat to progress. Whatever. We see it all around us now.

Reminder about the realities, as we enter another crisis over taxes and budgets:
  • The Washington Post's analysts, plus anyone who has looked at a budget, point out that the Obama Administration's budget proposals involve less in tax increases, and more in spending cuts, than what previously seemed perfectly "centrist" proposals. That is, what the administration is now proposing is what most centrist-minded people would have endorsed as a "reasonable compromise" two or three years ago;
  • Reporters from the Post, and from everywhere else, make clear that much of the GOP leadership and rank-and-file want the sequester to occur and are simply not interested in a last-minute compromise;
  • It's not from the Post, but a new profile of Eric Cantor, by Ryan Lizza in the New Yorker, makes clear what many had suspected. During the insane-at-the-time-and-worse-in-retrospect debt ceiling crisis nearly two years ago, Cantor intentionally talked Speaker John Boehner out of accepting a compromise with the Obama Administration, because Cantor wanted to preserve this as a campaign issue. Smoking-gun quote from Lizza:
    "In June of 2011, the President and the Speaker began working toward a Grand Bargain of major tax increases and spending cuts to address the government's long-term budget deficits. Until late June, Boehner had managed to keep these talks secret from Cantor. On July 21st, Boehner paused in his discussions with Obama to talk to Cantor and outline the proposed deal. As Obama waited by the phone for a response from the Speaker, Cantor struck. Cantor told me that it was a "fair assessment" that he talked Boehner out of accepting Obama's deal. He said he told Boehner that it would be better, instead, to take the issues of taxes and spending to the voters and "have it out" with the Democrats in the election. Why give Obama an enormous political victory, and potentially help him win reëlection, when they might be able to negotiate a more favorable deal with a new Republican President? Boehner told Obama there was no deal. Instead of a Grand Bargain, Cantor and the House Republicans made a grand bet."
  • Even the Post's own editorial today admits, in a "details, details" tone, that the administration has offered compromises on the crucial points, and the GOP hardliners have not.
In short the facts before us are:
    - an administration that has gone some distance toward "the center";
    - a Republican opposition many of whose members still hold the absolutist position that taxes cannot go up at all;
    - a hidden-from-no-one opposition strategy that embraces crises, shutdowns, and sequesters rather than wanting to avert them. Look again at the Lizza/Cantor quote: Obama and the Republicans could have had a "Grand Compromise" deal, but Republican hotheads wanted a fight for the sake of fighting.

That's the landscape. And what is the Post's editorial conclusion? You guessed it! The president is to blame, for not "leading" the way to a compromise. Representative passages:

Sequester offers President Obama a time to lead

... In the petty arguments over this self-inflicted wound, there are merits, or demerits, on both sides. The Republicans are right when they say that the sequester was Mr. Obama's idea, in the summer of 2011, and that he agreed to a deal that was all spending cuts, no tax hikes. He is correct that he hoped the sequester would never go into effect but would be replaced by a 10-year bargain that would raise revenue and slow the growth of entitlement costs. He is correct, too, on the larger point: Such a deal is what's needed, and the Republicans are wrong to resist further revenue hikes.

But if that's what's needed, why is Mr. Obama not leading the way to a solution? 
The same passage, annotated:
In the petty ["petty" is a dismissive signal that these are immature squabbles, petulance rather than anything really at stake] arguments over this self-inflicted wound, there are merits, or demerits, on both sides. [If you had a macro key for the last half of this sentence, you too could write false-equivalence editorials.] The Republicans are right when they say that the sequester was Mr. Obama's idea [a claim that (a) doesn't matter and (b) has been debunked in the Post], in the summer of 2011, and that he agreed to a deal that was all spending cuts, no tax hikes [not a "deal" but a poison-pill threat designed to force an agreement]. He is correct that he hoped the sequester would never go into effect but would be replaced by a 10-year bargain that would raise revenue and slow the growth of entitlement costs. He is correct, too, on the larger point: Such a deal is what's needed, and the Republicans are wrong to resist further revenue hikes. [He's right on the merits, they're right on a technicality -- but, hey, these things even out.

But if that's what's needed, why is Mr. Obama not leading the way to a solution? [What?? And how, exactly, is he supposed to change the dynamic and incentives on the other side?]
Not enough false equivalence for you? The editorial ends strong:
Most Republicans in Congress have been utterly irresponsible in this debate. They pretend that they could balance the budget without more revenue, an arithmetical impossibility, and they have failed to put forward realistic, near-term entitlement reforms. But we take little comfort in Mr. Obama's being less irresponsible. [!!!!] He is the president; his party colleagues are increasingly intransigent on entitlement reform; and it will be his -- and their -- progressive goals that suffer most if the nation continues on its current path.
Back to beer very soon, for a variety of reasons. Meanwhile, a variety of suggested improvements for the terse definition of false equivalence shown recently. Here's the original:

Thumbnail image for FalseEquiv.png

From a reader in Manhattan:

I often feel that the true expression is:
Democrats: 1+1 = 4
Republicans: 1+1 = 12
Press: 1+1= 10, probably, though some experts disagree.

And from another reader:

Democrats: 1 + 1 = 3 (multiplier effect)
Republicans: 1 - 1 = 3 (trickle down)
Media: 1 = 0

__

On this same phenomenon from Greg Sargent at the WaPo.
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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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