False Equivalence: The Pictorial Version

By James Fallows

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

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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** .
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** "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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This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2013/03/false-equivalence-the-pictorial-version/273674/