From a Young Man About to Be Sequestered

Someone now working for an executive-branch department writes:

As a government employee who will almost certainly be furloughed in the coming months, I have followed the sequester with a sort of horrid fascination.  Not that it is any more or less horridly fascinating than any of our other "crises" in recent times, but the sequester hammers a few points home very well.

First, our public policy discussion has become too wonkish, by being entirely focused on measurable outcomes at the expense of all others.  (Another example: the health care debate, the vast majority of which was about costs instead of the moral imperative of universal health care).  Yes, the sequester will have an economic cost and is a dumb way to reduce the deficit, but the government is not just a contributor to our GDP or a balance sheet.  On the contrary, many of the government's functions -- like keeping us safe, providing justice (hopefully), and researching disease -- cannot be encapsulated by economic impact.  I'm sure the Democrats are emphasizing the economic impact of the sequester in order to make all Americans feel like they have a stake in its outcome.  But that is not what the government, perhaps the sole major institution in this country whose only mission is to serve the public, is about.

Second, the media could cure us of political polarization and instantly bring about bipartisanship if they stopped playing the false equivalence game.  If the GOP's refusal to compromise was labeled as it actually is, they might pay a political price and be willing to cut a deal.  But by blaming both sides equally even though President Obama is offering a balanced solution, the media have severely curtailed whatever political incentive there is for cutting a deal.  After all, if the Democrats are blamed for not compromising even when they have made all the concessions, why on earth should the Republicans ever concede anything?

Blaming both sides for lack of compromise when one side has refused to make any concessions is like punishing all athletes when only some take steroids.  If everyone is getting punished no matter what, why not break the rules and hit some home runs?

I don't agree that a different media tone would "instantly bring about bipartisanship," and probably the writer doesn't even think that himself. But it's certainly true that the current media approach effectively rewards stone-walling, filibustering, brinkmanship, and so on, by not calling them out as pernicious and destructive techniques. 

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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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