A False Equivalence Classic

The press' role in the new form of "defining deviancy down."

A reader sent in the paragraph below as another classic in the false-equivalence chronicles. It comes from a bigtime news organization, and if you wanted you could of course track down the source exactly. I'm intentionally leaving out the details, because what makes the story significant is not that it's exceptional but that it's representative.

The article is about the risk that the economy will be disrupted yet again, by yet another showdown over raising the federal debt ceiling. It describes the fundamentals this way:

With investors already nervous about the Federal Reserve's plan to start scaling back its stimulus program, another fiscal policy standoff could be more disruptive this time around.

In recent days, both Democrats and Republicans have been digging in their heels, setting up another possible nerve-wracking battle over the debt ceiling, which the Treasury expects to hit by November.

"Hearing Washington banter back and forth over this again was like a recurring bad dream," said [I'll leave out this guy's name too], deputy chief investment officer at [XX] Bank, which manages $170 billion in assets.

That's one way to describe what's going on: Another damned partisan flap! Can't these politicians grow up and stop squabbling? To hell with all of them. This is of course the tone that runs through most gridlock/ dysfunction stories -- another standoff, charges back and forth --  and it's so familiar that this story can allude to it as an understood truth.

But there's a different way to describe the situation. That would be to say that the 44th president, like his 43 predecessors, believes that the United States should honor its sovereign debt, as part of maintaining the "full faith and credit of the United States." He also believes that the policy on government spending first applied under George Washington and in force since then should still be the policy now: once Congress has voted programs or benefits into law, then the government is legally and morally obligated to carry out those programs, until and unless they are repealed.* 

To which the other "side" to the dispute replies: Who cares! We don't like you or your programs, and to prove it we're willing to risk a default on the national debt. 

If you describe the "disagreement" the first way, no one's really to blame. It's just politics, a sign of the symmetrical dysfunction that plagues us all.

If you describe it the second way, then one side is sticking to historic norms and practices -- and the other is deliberately bringing on a showdown, with the all consequent risks for the domestic and international economies, via demands and threats out of scale with what previous Congresses have done. This second version is what's happening. 

Maybe you could argue that such drastic threats are sensible. You wouldn't convince me, but you could make the case. What you shouldn't do is pretend that this is a normal "agree to disagree" difference of perspective. It's not; it's nihilistic; and to reduce it to gridlock amounts to "defining deviancy down." We're hearing that phrase, of Daniel Patrick Moynihan's, a lot these days in honor of Anthony Weiner. But it applies to current debt-ceiling threats as well.

What's going on now is more like the 1970s-era hijackers Brendan Koerner describes in his recent book, who would threaten to blow up the plane unless they got the ride to Cuba they wanted. Or, if you want a less violent analogy, it's like me walking into a restaurant, ordering and enjoying a meal, and then when I finished just tearing up the check and saying that I was "digging in my heels" about whether I should pay. 


Through these past 10 days out of the country and the long flight back just now, I have nearly finished an actual beginning-to-end reading of Democracy in America -- all 700 tiny-print pages, often cited, rarely read.  Don't worry, I am not going to start rolling out Tocqueville aphorisms. But there is a lot in there that bears directly on threats like those we're hearing over the debt ceiling, among other items (including Trayvon Martin) in the recent news. I'm now up to page 580; when I get these last 120 pages under the belt, watch out!

* For a while the GOP and Fox News argued that the Obama Administration itself was ignoring this same principle in delaying the phase-in of some Obamacare transitions. That's a phony complaint, as Simon Lazarus has explained

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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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