Fake Fears and Why You (Probably) Believe in Them

Is there a solution to America’s current addiction to fear? The near-hysteria over the Christmas Day airplane attack shows how overblown our anxieties have become. A gloomy, jittery public seems willing to believe in alarmist stories, even when they amount to demagoguery.  Consider the following hyperbolic or even fake sources of fear and outrage.

1. Al-Qaeda remains a potent threat to U.S. security.

2.  Under proposed healthcare reform, “death panels” will have power to decide who gets treatment and who doesn’t.

3. Healthcare reform will beggar future generations.

4. The current deficit is so oversized that it will bankrupt the country.

5. Wall Street has benefited from government bailouts to the detriment of Main Street.

6. The U.S. owes so much money to foreign countries that soon the dollar will drastically decline.

7. China is rapidly overtaking the U.S. on all fronts.

You may be immune to the death panel scare, for which we have Sarah Palin to thank, her fear-inducing theme — a total fabrication — being quickly taken up by the far right and even mainstream Republicans.  But the other sources of fear are far easier to fall for, despite rational arguments and solid facts that run counter to them.

1. In fact, the U.S. has greatly weakened Al-Qaeda, which has been pushed to the far hinterlands of places like remote Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Yemen. A large number of high-level operatives have been killed. No attacks on the order of 9/11 have occurred in eight years. International sharing of intelligence is at an all-time high. The failure to prevent the Christmas Day airline attack was a wake-up call, but overall, the terror threat is manageable. With large-scale policing efforts in place of misguided wars and mass panic, the future of Al-Qaeda looks dim.

2. Death panels always were a lie, but in fact a national healthcare system will lead to some cuts in Medicare benefits and higher taxes. These are reasonable burdens to bear in the name of social justice. Far more serious and credible threats exist to the American way of life than proposed cuts in Medicare. (Sarah Palin, the author of death panels, is skilled at framing appealing lies.  Her populist campaign against big government, for example, ignores the fact that her home state of Alaska receives more government money per capita than any other state; fully a third of all jobs in Alaska are government jobs.)

3. Our present healthcare system has a much greater chance – it’s  almost a guarantee — to beggar future generations than any proposed reform.  It’s not reform that is bankrupting us but the failure to cut soaring medical costs and the $700 billion spent annually on unnecessary tests and procedures.

4. Right-wing propaganda to the contrary, the current and foreseeable deficit is no greater, as a percentage of gross domestic product, than what the U.S. has carried in the past. The immediate postwar deficit in 1945 is an example. European countries routinely carry the same percentage deficit without undue harm.  Large deficits need to be incurred during serious recessions in order to stimulate spending when the public is too afraid or unable to spend. Such incentives are part of the modern nation state. The touting of free market mechanisms has been proven wrong over and over. It may be confusing to know what to do in economic downturns; however, doing nothing is the worst choice.

5. Wall Street’s reaction to its own misbehavior has sparked outrage, and rightfully so on moral grounds. But the huge recovery of the stock  market, with a 40% rise in the S&P index for 2009, also benefited Main Street. Billions of dollars of new capital entered the economy, allowing for more lending, spending, and capital investment.  There are complex reasons why the economy acts the way it does, but blaming Wall Street entirely is unrealistic and divisive.

6. The dollar showed strength at the beginning of the recession but has subsequently declined. It may be that there is a long-term decline in view, but not over the short term. At present U.S. Treasury bills are selling well at low interest rates. Attempts to replace the dollar as a world currency have not been successful, just as decoupling foreign stock markets from Wall Street have not been successful.  We are in a financial crisis and many trends are not favorable. But the rest of the world is in the same crisis, and everyone’s fate is intertwined with everyone else’s.

7. China is rising quickly and has the advantage of central government control. Its huge work force is expected to produce a gross domestic product that will equal the U.S. in a generation. But for now the BRIC countries — Brazil, Russia, India, and China — taken together equal the domestic product of the U.S. We hugely dominate the world economy, and contrary to the alarmists, increasing the wealth and productivity of developing countries will benefit America, not hurt us, by offering more people who can buy our goods, travel to the U.S. and buy our currency.

As you can see, it’s more meticulous and time-consuming to learn about these complex issues than to run scared. Fear is easy to fall for. Fortunately, we now have an anti-fear administration. Whatever one may think of President Obama’s performance in office, he is certainly a level-headed thinker, whose fix-it agenda is based on a rational approach.  It would be good for all of us if we followed his lead and stop being addicted to fear. The frisson of bad news creates a momentary high, but in the long run fear is our enemy, as it has always been.

Published in the San Francisco Chronicle