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Week In News: Sequestration Looms


It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden.

Later in the show, a haunting and sometimes menacing Dutch novel, a talk with former Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr, and backstage at the Oscars. But first, we're back to the sequester debate.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Instead of compromising, instead of asking anything of the wealthiest Americans, they'd rather let these cuts fall squarely on the middle class.

SENATOR JOHN HOEVEN: But the right way to address our deficit and debt and get past the sequester is not higher taxes or just better spending control. It's by creating jobs, growing the economy and expanding the tax base.

LYDEN: That was President Obama from this morning's radio and Internet address and North Dakota Senator John Hoeven with the Republican response. And James Fallows of The Atlantic joins us, as he does most Saturdays. Hi there, Jim.

JAMES FALLOWS: Hello, Jacki.

LYDEN: So, Jim, last week, we were saying that the mood around here seemed sort of lazy when it came to the sequester. It's changed since then, hasn't it?

FALLOWS: It certainly has. There have been congressional hearings, think-tank meetings and news reports, all making specific what this is actually going to mean when it takes effect, as it almost inevitably will, just a couple of days from now on the March 1st deadline. The former director of the NIH said the cuts in research grants would set back medical research for a generation. The former administrator of the FAA has talked about what it's going to mean for air traffic control, for TSA. National parks people have been speaking up. So it looks as if this is going to happen and as if we're all going to feel the effects.

LYDEN: You know, Jim, there have been, of course, vaunted and feared government shutdowns. Is there anything you can really compare this to in modern political history?

FALLOWS: There's nothing that has quite the size and feel of what we seem to be in for here. Back in the 1990s, there was a relatively minor sequestration under the first President George Bush. Famously in 1995, there was a government shutdown in the standoff between Bill Clinton and the Newt Gingrich-led House Republicans then. But at that time, it was the entire government that was shut down. It was obviously temporary from the get-go, and the president was able to declare certain functions to be necessary emergency contingencies. This time, the sequestration law says that it has to have a meat-axe effect just across the board. So there's very little that the president can do, it seems.

LYDEN: Let's turn now, Jim, to an overseas economic situation and a climate situation, and that's China. The Chinese will start imposing a carbon tax in a couple of years. They've been reluctant to do that. What's changed their minds?

FALLOWS: I think the immediate forcing effect in China has been just the terrible pollution and environmental disaster that's been building for decades but has become acute in the last few months in the air pollution nightmares people have read about in Beijing and Shanghai and elsewhere. It now burns more coal than the rest of the world combined, and that total is going up very fast as the American total is going down.

I would argue to our listeners that this is the main good news development of this past week. The Chinese, as you say, have dragged their feet in taking a step on climate or carbon issues. They say the United States is so much richer than we are. Why should we pay this penalty when the U.S. isn't doing anything? So this is a sign both that they need to address their own environmental crises and also try to make their economy more modern overall.

LYDEN: You know, Jim, it was really shocking to read how energy inefficient the Chinese economy actually is.

FALLOWS: Yes. I think that we know that the Chinese economy has been fantastically productive over the last 30 years. You know, villages have gone from small fishing areas to gigantic factory complexes and all the rest. But by normal economic terms, it's been at huge costs of efficiency. Here's the simplest way to bear that fact in mind.

The Chinese economy produces much less stuff than the U.S. does. Depending on your measures, maybe one-half as much, two-thirds as much. But it now puts out more pollutants and more emissions than the U.S. economy does. And that's part of the gap or the problem the Chinese government is trying to address.

LYDEN: James Fallows is national correspondent with The Atlantic. And you can read his blog at Jim, it's always a pleasure.

FALLOWS: My pleasure, Jacki. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.