False-Equivalence Watch: WaPo Edition, Chapter 3,219

An item today by Jonathan Chait, on New York magazine site, is as clear a dissection of "false equivalence" as you will ever see. It is worth reading carefully, for reasons of both tactics and strategy. Tactically, it is a very useful guide to the arguments you'll be hearing during Countdown To Sequester these next few days. Strategically, it explains the tics and tells that give away "false equivalence" reasoning in general.

Here's the problem with reporting on "the sequester." (I fussily put it in quotes because it's still a verb, midway through being bastardized into a noun.) What the Obama Administration is proposing is in fact very close to D.C. "centrist" opinion, including what is often expressed by the Post's editorial page. The essence of that view is (a) it would be better to avoid the sequester than to let these mindless Procrustean cuts happen, (b) avoiding it should involve both spending cuts and tax increases, and (c) just to hammer the previous point home, it is crazy to talk about deficit solutions and pretend there can be no tax increase whatsoever. 

The Post and most "serious" outlets prefer this mixture to the purest Republican version, which is (a) taxes cannot go up, and (b) it is better to let the sequester happen than to violate point (a).

But, as Chait explains, the Post is uncomfortable saying that it agrees with "one side" in a dispute like this. Thus from Chait:
Respectable centrist position agrees with Obama's position. But to agree with one party is not a respectable centrist thing to do. And so a wide stream of coverage and commentary on this issue is dedicated to actively misleading Americans about what the two sides are proposing.
The sentence in bold is worth remembering through the rest of the sequester battle. It leads to headlines like this one in the editorial today:


There is a place for "both sides prefer posturing and conflict" analysis -- in most football brawls, for instance; or in the current showdown between Japan and China over the uninhabited islands whose very name is subject to dispute. But as Chait explains, the sheer attitudinal comfort of the "both sides to blame" posture trumps the force of the paper's own logic, which shows that one "side" is making unreasonable demands. You see this same reflex in laments about caused-by-no-one Congressional "dysfunction," rather than pointing out the purposeful use of filibusters, holds, and other delaying tactics. To its credit, the Post's news pages took the lead over other publications in describing the Hagel filibuster this way. And many of the Post's writers, starting with those at Wonkblog, have been laying out the realities of the budget free from the reflex to cast everything in "both sides to blame" terms.

For the record, I agree with Chait on many things, including most aspects of domestic policy, but we have disagreed on some others, as he has pointed out. The false-equivalent D.C. veteran in me is tempted to say that we're both to blame for any misunderstanding -- but of course I know who's really in the right ... 

Also on sequester-ology in general, see this piece by Michael Cohen, about scare-mongering on the effects of defense-budget cuts. The sequester is a stupid way to apply cuts, but one way or another military spending is headed down.
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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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