Saturday, January 26, 2013

The Joni Mitchell Fallacy

I've looked at life from both sides now
From up and down and still somehow
It's life's illusions I recall
I really don't know life at all
One of the worst characteristics of modern journalism is the "both sides" reflex. If there is a political problem, we need to acknowledge the way "both sides" have something to do with it.

But sometimes it simply isn't so.

Last week, James B. Stewart, writing in the New York Times about the budget talks, gave us one of the more egregious and demonstrably false examples of this tendency:
What dismayed all the experts I spoke to was that the hostile tone was obscuring the fact that both sides agreed on the two most fundamental issues; the debt ceiling needs to be raised and a government default avoided, and the long-term deficit needs to be addressed through some combination of spending cuts and tax increases.
This is not a description of what "both sides" believe. It is a description of President Obama's position. 

We do not have an agreement because that is NOT the position of the Republican Party. The position of the Republican Party is that the deficit should be reduced with spending cuts only and with no tax increases, and that the threat of reaching the debt ceiling and causing default is a good way of getting what they want.

The Republican position for the last two years has been that we should not raise the debt ceiling without cutting spending--even if that means government cannot pay all of its bills. South Carolina Rep. Mick Mulvaney said just last week that the government could merely pay Social Security benefits and interest on the debt: “Whether or not we keep the national parks open is not what people think of when they hear default,” said Mulvaney. “It’s certainly not what the markets think.”

Translation: as long as the banks and AARP members get paid, default is no big deal.
This past week, the House GOP recognized that its position was politically untenable and approved a three-month extension of the debt ceiling. But if it truly believed that the threat of default was unthinkable, it would never have created these debt ceiling showdowns. The House could have raised--or even better, abolished--the debt ceiling. If it truly believed in the need for spending cuts and tax increases, it could have gotten that deal from the president at several points in the past. When that deal was on the table, they said "no." Their entire negotiating posture is this: we prefer default to not getting our way on spending.
In reality, this is not a case of "both sides." We Americans want to believe that both of our political parties are, deep down, made up primarily of reasonable people. There are still reasonable people in the Republican Party, but they are being bullied by Tea Party extremists and purists. 
Perhaps John Boehner's decision to accept the so-called "fiscal cliff" deal (and its tax increase on incomes over $400,000) and the recent three-month debt ceiling extension represent an end to the Tea Party's dictation to the allegedly responsible leadership, but I doubt it. We'll know better in about three months.

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