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Week in Review

Negotiations Continue On Capitol Hill One Day Before Debt Limit Deadline

This week, WRM paved the way for a return to his “Big Five” essay series, covering America’s five make or break challenges in the coming decades. But first, he looked at the significance—if any—of the recent budget battle, the topic that’s captured the undivided attention of the media and chattering classes in recent weeks. Here’s why Via Meadia hasn’t covered the topic with the same breathless enthusiasm:

For fans of politics, like fans of professional wrestling, there was a lot of fun to be had by following the various twists in the plot line, but history was not being made in the Washington budget fight. If you follow the news for its entertainment value (plenty of people do this and there is nothing wrong with it—it’s an innocent distraction, like scrapbooking or playing video games), you had a great time for the last few weeks. And for the Journolisters on the left and their sparring partners on the right, the budget fight was a classic story of partisan combat. Everybody could jump in, score what points they could, fight the good fight for their side, and the traffic was good. For those who have a taste for it, it was fun to watch the bright young men of the left and the right try to score verbal points off one another as the slightly older men (and it was mostly men who played prominent roles in the political food fight) of the two parties wrestled in the mud. […]

[But this] blog is dedicated to the proposition that not all news is equal; there are some stories that really matter and then there is fluff. Lots of fluff. While some commentators like to rail against media bias (and I agree that most mainstream news outlets list well to port), the real problem is less the media’s instinctive, uncritical love for center-left pablum than the failure of the news business as a whole to highlight the stories that matter and skim over the ones that don’t. Ukraine’s drift toward the EU and away from Russia, for example, was a much more consequential story than anything that happened this month on Capitol Hill. From a purely domestic standpoint, the implosion of the Obamacare exchange website was a more consequential story than the budget standoff. […]

I’m not trying to argue that nothing happened in the budget fight or that all the effort that went into covering it was wasted. We learned something about the divisions in the Republican Party and gained further insight into the difficulties it must overcome to mount an effective challenge in 2016. For federal employees and contractors, it was important to monitor every twist and turn in the battle; they had to make real time decisions in their daily lives based on the melee on Capitol Hill. (Even they, however, would not have gone wrong in assuming that a deal would come a short time before the debt ceiling was breached and acting accordingly.) Financial market investors needed to sample the news to figure out what the dumb money was thinking and to make their bets appropriately. For political consultants and others trying to figure out which Republican hopeful to back in 2o16, it was a useful opportunity to see how different possible candidates behaved under stress. Watching the breathless reaction of gullible foreigners to the media storm was a helpful reminder that many intelligent foreign observers understand the United States as poorly as most Americans understand the politics of foreign countries.

But anybody whose goal is to understand the events shaping our world who really tried to follow the details of the news explosion around the budget battle ended up wasting a lot of irreplaceable time. Worse, the bad example of so many famous writers and commenters obsessing over this spectacle likely led many people to mistake a media firestorm for a serious moment in the life of the republic. Moments like this undermine our capacity to change things for the better because they confuse so many of us about what really matters.

Japan is roiling the waters in Asia; relations are cooling with South Korea as hatred of Korea is spreading amongst Japanese youth, while Japanese officials continued to display a conflicted view of the country’s history by visiting a controversial war shrine, enraging China. Beijing, for its part, is expanding its diplomatic and business ties in the region, eclipsing America’s Asian pivot. Chinese green energy companies are getting extra help from the World Bank in their bid to deliver cheap, low quality, and not terribly efficient products to market. India got another piece of bad economic news this week as inflation hit an 8-month high. And in Afghanistan, it seems that the long NATO presence has really changed the country in some important ways, but America’s hasty exit won’t encourage the Taliban to make concessions.

In Europe, Catalonia is moving closer to independence as the euro crisis continues to sputter along. France is shuffling slowly towards pension reform, while Europe is bracing itself for the problem of 3D printed guns. In energy news, the continent continues to display its inability to find the balance between green goals and growth. And the NYT published an excellent new semi-interactive portrait of a declining Russia.

A possible thaw in Iranian-American relations made headlines this week, but while the talks between the two countries are a step in the right direction, hope for a detente is premature. Elsewhere in the Middle East, Egyptian Christians may have to flee in order to survive, while the death count in Iraq so far this year passed 6,000.

Domestically, a Moody’s report confirmed the worst fears of teachers’ unions, finding that charter schools do, in fact, hurt traditional public schools. The Economist reported on the disconcerting trend in scientific research of publishing for publishing’s sake. And some colleges are cutting financial aid, a move that paradoxically could be good for students in the long run.

Obamacare’s troubled rollout entered a second—and possibly, much more serious—phase of glitches. As more data continues to trickle out, it looks like the administration won’t reach its first enrollment goals, and one of the ACA’s biggest supporters, Ezra Klein, had some harsh words on its implementation: “the magnitude of this failure is stunning.” Over at the Daily Kos, contributor Tirge Caps is furious that his insurance prices will increase under the ACA. Yet another bad week for Obamacare, and there’s little reason to hope things will get much better.

[John Boehner photo courtesy of Getty Images]

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  • BobSykes

    You overlooked the Saudi temper tantrum. It is entirely possible that they will provide the Israelis with forward airbases and logistical support for a sustained attack on Iranian nuclear installations.

  • Bart Hall

    And if you think the Nippo-Korean relationship is chippy now, just wait a couple of years until Abe’s policy of JPY devaluation makes it possible for most of the world to purchase Toyotas and Nissans at the same price as Hyundais and Kias.

    The dominant story with Japan, however, is that with immense debt, a shrinking population, and a near-absolute unwillingness to accept immigrants, Japan is (in the delightful description of John Mauldin) “A bug in search of a windshield.”

  • Bart Hall

    As a separate note … WRM is completely correct about “news” and “history”. My grandfather (1885-1977) taught me the same thing when I was in my early teens half a century ago.

    Given that he was a Colonel in the Army (intel), our CIA Station-Chief for all of southern South America (including Brazil), and a professor of Spanish and Portuguese at Yale … I took him seriously because even in my adolescent arrogance I understood he knew what he was talking about.

    You young’uns out there … take Dr. Mead seriously. Different background, but the same message (quoting my granddad): “Most history never makes the news, and most of the news never makes history.”

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