The Politics of Economic Fear

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For the third time in as many years, the Obama administration has told Congress that if it doesn't pass a measure the White House wants, the country will be hit by a disaster.  

This month Tim Geithner said failing to raise the debt ceiling would essentially destroy U.S. creditworthiness. Last month, Larry Summers warned that failure to pass Obama's tax cut deal would probably bring a double-dip recession. And last year, the president said the stimulus package stopped a repeat of the Great Depression.

What happened to "breaking the politics of fear" that are used to "scare up votes"?

That's what candidate Obama called for the country to do during the Bush years. What a surprise: a politician fails to hold himself to the same standard he used to attack an opponent.
 
But Obama was right in 2008: The politics of fear are no good. The things Geithner, Summers, Obama, and Bush have said to persuade people may be accurate from time to time, but that's not enough. The politics of fear often prevent the country from getting the debate it deserves, and often stop us from getting good solutions to our problems.

That's especially true of the economy. When Geithner frames the debate around the debt ceiling as a decision between (fiscal) life and death, we end up discussing the no-brainer choice of life--but not the more complicated choices of how that life should be lived. Should spending cuts or tax hikes accompany a bill to raise the debt ceiling? Who gets hurt or helped by those proposals and what sort of country would we have as a result?

America largely refused to have such debates during the last 30 years, when the economy grew almost without interruption but in the wrong ways. Republicans and Democrats largely argued how to create more growth rather than where the growth should occur. Driving up consumer debt, riding market bubbles, exporting jobs, importing oil, and increasing federal spending all made GDP and the stock market rise, but in ways that were not fundamentally healthy for the country and didn't enrich the middle class.

Politicians always speak of pushing the country in the right or wrong direction toward a future of either salvation or ruin. Next time a politician warns that his idea must be accepted or else, maybe the response shouldn't be "Yes" or "No" but rather, "OK, you're right, but what shape will this leave us in?" We shouldn't be scared into having a shallow debate and we shouldn't be scared of having a deep one either.

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Justin Miller was an associate editor at The Atlantic from 2009 to 2011. He is now the homepage editor at New York magazine. More

Justin Miller was a associate editor at The Atlantic. Previously he was an assistant editor at RealClearPolitics, a political reporter in Ohio, and a freelance journalist.
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