Why Tea Partiers Don't Believe in the Debt-Ceiling Emergency

Their doubts spring from dangerous heuristics and the fact that the establishment has cried wolf so many times in the past. 
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Over at Mother Jones, Kevin Drum tries to understand the debt-ceiling fight from the perspective of Republicans who oppose raising it. "A lot of tea partiers just flatly don't believe that breaching the debt ceiling is the big deal that liberals are making it out to be," he writes, so they regard their ongoing intransigence on the matter as "just ordinary leverage, not a threat of financial Armageddon."

That is correct. But why do they doubt that breaching the debt ceiling is a big deal? There are many reasons. The unfamiliar, complicated nature of national borrowing is part of the answer. (How many of us understand this stuff? It doesn't seem like a congressional vote that does nothing to change the fundamentals of the economy could suddenly do catastrophic damage. Hell, having lived through a recent financial meltdown, that still seems weird, surreal, and improbable.) Psychologically, it is often hard to believe in a catastrophe that hasn't yet happened, and many on the right have a heuristic—a misguided one, at that—to dismiss any warning that is issued by liberals, academics, or the media, so that they are governed by what their perceived adversaries say so much that they don't even make an attempt at dispassionate, independent analysis.

This can be dangerous!

Experts are always giving us advice and sometimes ignoring them results in the spread of disease among unvaccinated children, the declines in housing stock that accompany rent control, or needless deaths in predictable natural disasters for which people weren't adequately prepared. The experts are actually correct a lot.

Yet I suspect that another important factor is the frequency with which the establishment hypes some threats. The Japanese were going to buy up all of America, Y2K was going to be a terrible crisis, Saddam Hussein was going to attack the American homeland if we didn't invade Iraq first, and we can't be safe from terrorists unless we give the NSA carte blanche to spy on everyone in the world. Bath salts!

"Former Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge claims in a new book that he was pressured by other members of President George W. Bush's Cabinet to raise the nation's terror alert level just before the 2004 presidential election," the Associated Press reported in 2009, and does that really surprise anyone? Pondering all the dire warnings the citizenry is given, it becomes clear that taking all of them at face value is as imprudent as dismissing them all out of hand.

Think narrowly of fiscal crisis. There was certainly a financial meltdown unfolding as the Bush Administration prepared to leave office. Intervention was necessary. Am I convinced that the only way to ameliorate it was for alums of the most powerful Wall Street banks to secretly transfer staggering amounts of wealth to those very same Wall Street banks? I am not.

Yet in all of these cases most people must rely on experts and heuristics. The fact that we were warned against imaginary wolves, or told that real wolves can only be fought by making Goldman Sachs whole, is not an excuse for failing to see that there is good reason to worry about what could happen if the debt ceiling isn't raised. At the same time, a portion of the blame ought to be assigned to all the elites who've disingenuously fabricated or exploited past emergencies to advance their ends in a way that they probably couldn't have done without scare tactics.

The Tea Party's failure isn't harboring a belief that the Washington, D.C., establishment would exaggerate a threat for political leverage. It's an inability to distinguish between hyped and real threats*. At best, failing to raise the debt ceiling will have unpredictable consequences that could turn out to do significant damage to America. Set against that potential cost, the potential benefit of not acting is ... what exactly? The "debt-ceiling deniers" are convinced that standing firm will somehow fix our medium- and long-term fiscal problems, but that just isn't so. Any damage done will be a totally unforced error by House Republicans. This isn't a time that the conventional wisdom should be ignored.

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*They should probably just outsource their judgment on these things to Tyler Cowen.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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