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5...4...3...2...1... We Have Sequestration

NPR icon by Linton Weeks
A A
Pete Cosgrove

Only a few more hours until the sequestration is scheduled to kick in. You can feel the tension. The anxiety. The pre-panic attack.

On Wednesday, a dank and dire dread hangs in the air like malware. "Countdown to Budget Crisis," reads the Atlanta Journal-Constitution headline. "Sequestration Is Two Days Away," a CBS affiliate reports. "Washington breathlessly watches the dramatic countdown to the coming 'sequester' cuts," according to the Washington Times.

Everywhere you swivel there is a sense of coming chaos.

It's true that if sweeping budget cuts are made, some people's lives will be disrupted or upended. But is that what most Americans are reacting to? Preacting to? Or is it the anticipation of disaster, the so-called Countdown Effect?

In contemporary times, we live with the Countdown Effect pretty much every day. We see countdown clocks for subway schedules, busy intersection crosswalks, weddings, TV news shows and on websites — heralding store openings, coming movies, new video games and more.

Countdowns can make life more exciting. And more nerve-wracking.

"Countdowns can help raise awareness, focus our attention and prompt action around important societal issues," says James A. Cowen, a senior vice president at Ogilvy Public Relations. "Countdowns are most effective when there is a belief that: there is a real and clear consequence at the end; that consequence impacts me and action beforehand can change the outcome."

Here then is an annotated countdown of some of the most memorable countdowns ever, leading up, of course, to the most important countdown of all – the one happening at the moment that commands our full attention.

5... The Year 2000 Global Disaster Possibility. By 1999, there were so many computers in the world, some people believed that major aspects of human life might be impaired on January 1, 2000, when those computers' clocks rolled over from 99 to 00 – perhaps confusing the machinery."Y2K was a powerful countdown," says Cowen. "The belief in the potential consequences – critical infrastructure, financial system, and massive software failures – was strong enough to prompt enormous action."

4... The New Year's Eve Ball Drop in New York City's Times Square. The first ceremonial orb – made of iron and wood and weighing 700 pounds – was lowered from a flag pole on the New York Times building to mark the end of 1907. At the end of 2012, millions of people around the world – on screens and in person — watched the ball fall.

3... A NASA Rocket Launch. According to Countdown 101, a primer on Space Shuttle launching by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, pauses – known as "holds" – are figured into each countdown "to allow the launch team to target a precise launch window, and to provide a cushion of time for certain tasks and procedures without impacting the overall schedule." It doesn't take a rocket scientist to know that opportunities for breath-taking and second-guessing should be built into all countdowns. Ok, maybe it does.

2... An Athletic Game Clock. Basketball, football and hockey games are played using game clocks that count down. For a reason. The notion of "running out of time" is obviously metaphoric. And the chance to "beat the clock" adds to the thrill of victory – and the agony of, well, you know. Witness North Carolina State's last nanosecond win over Houston in the NCAA championship game in 1983. Or the last moment pass that allowed Boston College to beat the University of Miami in 1984.

1... The Sequestration of 2013. Referring to the countdown clock scheduled to run out when federal spending cuts begin on March 1, Talking Points Memo observed: "If, as many suspect, no deal is reached to avoid it and President Obama orders the sequester... the reliability of government services and the broader economic outlook will grow very uncertain."

But, TPM continues, "unlike the targeted federal spending cuts we've seen in recent years, the sequester isn't designed to reshape federal priorities in democratic ways. Instead, when the sequester order goes out, it will effectively start a countdown clock, which ends at the close of the fiscal year on Sept. 30."

That's right, when this countdown clock ends, it will begin another countdown clock.

While there's widespread concern about the impact of budget reductions, says Ogilvy's Cowen, "that impact is not totally clear. The automatic spending cuts will affect different groups at different times in different locations."

When it comes to politics, says Brandon Adams, author of Setting Sun: The End of U.S. Economic Dominance, "people have become more sophisticated in distinguishing between credible and non-credible countdowns."

Adams, a professional poker player who once taught behavioral finance at Harvard University, says, "A fully credible countdown is one that must happen or is extremely likely to happen, like the turning of the clock on New Year's Eve or the landfall of a hurricane. A non-credible countdown is a somewhat artificial construction, like a marriage ultimatum during courtship, that can be easily averted by mutual agreement among the participants."

The debate on sequestration, Adams says, "largely falls into the category of a non-credible countdown."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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