False Equivalence: The Pictorial Version

From a reader in Seattle, the front page of the Seattle Times on Saturday:


It's way late here in China, and the Internet is so hobbled* that I have to try a new VPN ruse every three or four minutes, and in the circumstances I can't stand to go through the whole demonstration of why this approach should be considered false equivalence. OK, the barebones version:
  • Obama's latest budget offers are more "Republican" -- tougher on spending cuts, lighter on tax increases -- than what were venerated recently as centrist plans;
  • the GOP leadership has been open about its preference to have a showdown rather than a deal;
  • Obama has already conceded certain points that had been vaunted as game-changers, without any change in the game;
  • and the narrative is, "nobody budged." 
So it begins. As inspirational sequester-era reading, I offer you this selection from California Crackup, the very good book by Joe Mathews and Mark Paul about how filibuster-style, permanent-emergency politics made it nearly impossible for the nation's biggest and richest state to do public business. See if this passage, written several years ago, reminds you of anything in the news these days:
In most budget fights, the Republicans -- holding more than one-third of the seats in one or both legislative chambers, so enough to block a budget or revenue increase -- would make their support contingent on a list of demands. Many involved either cutting taxes or boosting spending for their own constituents -- even in times when the budget was out of balance ....

This form of hostage-taking became the norm. As long as the minority party could remain cohesive, the strategy would work. The legislative majority felt the burden of governing the state. But the minority could delay the most basic task of the legislature -- passing a budget - without being held responsible....

This two-thirds system, as it hardened, obscured responsibility and prevented political accountability. In a majority-vote system, the Democrats would have been accountable for the state's budget problems.... But in a two-thirds system, no one could fairly say that a budget belonged to one party or the other... [It] was a license for irresponsibility and inaction.
Gee, it would be a shame if we were to have this problem on the national level** .
** "To be sure" differences of detail: In its most dysfunctional period, the California legislature required a two-thirds majority to pass budgets, as opposed to the 60-vote threshold that chronic filibustering has made the norm in the U.S. Senate. Also, thanks to redistricting, the GOP of course currently holds a majority in the U.S. House even though Democratic candidates received more votes than Republican ones nationwide. But overall the party's identity and strategy now are clearly those of an empowered blocking-group minority, rather than of a governing majority.

GmailFail.png* I argued in my book that the intentional hamstringing of the Internet was a more-than-trivial handicap for China as it aspires to be a first-tier power in research, advanced technology, culture. At least at the moment in Beijing, it's incredibly onerous to use (see right and below). 

The United States should be embarrassed about its stupid "sequester." China should be embarrassed about this stupid lobotomization of its connections with the world. More when I can find a better-functioning VPN (including scores of messages on the "liberal hawk" front). 

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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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