From a Young Man About to Be Sequestered

By James Fallows

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. 

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2013/03/from-a-young-man-about-to-be-sequestered/273663/