Simplistic Warmongering and Simplistic Fearmongering About Debt: Compare and Contrast

The current crisis in Israel and Gaza began on October 7 with Hamas's unimaginably brutal mass killings and taking of hostages.  Somehow, the situation has gotten even worse by the day, and it is threatening to spread into other countries in the area as well, possibly even pulling outside powers directly into a regional war that could kill tens of thousands and turn hundreds of thousands or even millions of people into refugees -- with innocent people being in the vast majority of both the dead and the forcibly displaced.

Given what has already happened, and contemplating the prospect of what further horrors we might witness in the very near future (to say nothing of the generations-long aftereffects of the bad decisions being made today), it is not surprising that so many people are feeling especially emotional right now.  For myself, I can say that although I am quite accurately described as a stereotypical WASP-y man, reserved and outwardly unemotional, I have been overwhelmed by what is happening.  As a rough guess, I would suppose that I have cried once per year on average in my adult life, usually in response to very personal losses; but lately I have found myself in tears several times each week.  Sometimes, simply hearing a beautiful song has been enough to open the floodgates.

What to do?  Well, the usual response among emotionally reserved people is to throw oneself into a job, repressing unpleasant thoughts by changing the subject and thinking about one's work.  And more than any other topic, my work over the course of decades has involved analyzing US public debt and deficits.  As the title of this column suggests, however, I am only partly redirecting my thoughts from the horrors in Israel and Gaza, having found what I hope is an interesting and useful way to think about the rhetorical similarities (and differences) of the uses of fear to provoke unreasoned responses among the public at large regarding two topics that appear to be categorically different -- Israel/Gaza and US debt.

Before I can even begin to talk about those rhetorical similarities and differences, it is necessary to confront something that had never occurred to me until now.  That is, what initially seemed like a clean and clear distinction between those two topics -- terrorist killings and public debt -- turns out upon even a moment's reflection to be unexpectedly superficial.  It seems so simple.  Warmongering is about killing people, often innocents.  Debt scaremongering is about dollars and accounting.  One is about life and death, the other is about economics and finance.  Categorically different, right?

Not so much.  After all, the "deficit scolds" whip up fears about debt and deficits to justify policies that harm and even kill innocents.  Recently, for example, Republicans (with no objection from the supposedly reasonable Mitt Romney, by the way) were perfectly happy to "save" money -- and thus fight the supposed scourge of public debt -- by allowing the expansion of the Child Tax Credit to lapse, resulting in three million additional children being sent back into poverty.  If Congress had simply renewed the credit that it had passed as part of one of its Covid packages, "the child poverty rate would have been about 8.4 percent rather than 12.4 percent" by the end of 2022, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

As a result, one out of eight children is in poverty in the US today, with devastating consequences for brain development and life expectancy.  And even when that number was at its lowest, the ratio was one in twelve.  That is, millions of children are living shortened, impoverished lives in the US, because we allow that to happen, even though these children's only mistake was to have lost the birth lottery.

More broadly, one of the things that President Biden gave away -- after he made the questionable decision to negotiate with now-ex-Speaker Kevin McCarthy to kick the debt ceiling problem into 2025 -- was an increase in work requirements for SNAP, formerly known as Food Stamps.  And given that the cold, hard evidence (which has been analyzed by other emotionally unavailable social science types like me) has demonstrated over and over again that such work requirements do not in fact cause more people to work, the net result is to starve people.  To death.  And the adults who are dying these unnecessary deaths are in almost every case the grown-up survivors of childhood poverty, who are being told that even though they had every disadvantage in life while growing up, they are now unworthy of our concern if they are not savvy about job searches and financial planning.

I am obviously not saying that there is no difference between dying relatively slowly due to poverty in the US as opposed to dying suddenly in a bomb strike or terrorist attack in Gaza or Israel.  The viscerally overwhelming aspect of without-warning deaths of innocents explains why I have been sobbing so frequently lately, even though I have been able to detach myself from the human stakes of what I have been studying for my entire professional life, by focusing on the dollars and cents rather than on the people and suffering behind those economic analyses.

But even beyond the several-steps-removed level of analysis at which people like me engage, we do not ignore the consequences of reactionary economic and social policies only when they are somehow difficult to dramatize.  Among adults, the difference in life expectancy between those with and without health insurance, which is entirely about conscious economic policy choices, is staggering.  Meanwhile, the leading cause of death in the US for children is guns, followed by overdoses.  The latter cause is rather obviously associated with poverty, but those gun deaths are very much in the "dying suddenly by violence" category.  Many of what we think of as "typical" problems of bad economic and social policies are unremarkable because they are not salient, but even those that are visible are still somehow treated as intractable.

The wonder, then, is not that this month's events thousands of miles away are causing such an emotional reaction.  The wonder is that we are so numb to all of the other ways in which innocent people are unnecessarily suffering and dying every day.

This is all to say that I have now rejected my initial worry, after noticing the rhetorical connection between the two types of fearmongering, that it was grossly inappropriate to compare the two types of social ills.  They are not the same, of course, but both deal with suffering and death that can and should be reduced (and ideally ended) -- and both are instead made worse by politicians and others who stoke fear for their own purposes.

Almost immediately after October 7, news coverage across the political spectrum referred to the "war" in Gaza and Israel.  That leap was, I think, a tragic mistake.  Word choices have profound consequences in situations like this, and defaulting to the language of war shapes the way people think about a situation.  The use of weapons that are also used in war does not make something a war -- even when those weapons are being used not only by individuals and paramilitaries but by official armies.  If we talk about being at war, we are already allowing ourselves not to be bothered by any second thoughts or doubts when we hear about military actions including bombings, ground offenses, and tanks rolling in.

As I noted in a column last week (and there are surely hundreds if not thousands of other examples of this by now), the ranking Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee explained that a de-escalation or ceasefire was out of the question because "Israel is fighting a war.  It's a very difficult war."  And once we use that word, the unthinkable becomes thinkable, if not mundane.  We start to talk about "acceptable collateral damage" instead of "dead civilians."  We hear people reject short-of-war efforts to bring the terrorists to justice as, in the words of Senator Chuck Schumer, "letting Hamas continue to exist so that they can do it again?  Nuh uh.  No one in Israel is for that."  Nor should they be, but Schumer is of course posing a false choice: all-out war, or abject surrender.

Similarly, it is important not to attribute actions to Israel as an abstraction but to the current Israeli government, led by its Prime Minister.  In my columns last week, I tried to be careful not to say that what Netanyahu's government was saying was what Israelis as a whole were thinking or wanted to do, even though (or especially because) we are all accustomed to using a country's name as a shorthand in these situations.  When, for example, "the United States" cruelly separated children from their parents at the southern border, it was important to remind ourselves that those were the illegal actions of a non-majority government, not the choice of Americans mediated through a functioning political system.  The Israeli voices that have described their governing coalition as, for example, "the right-wing lunatics, fanatics, and messianic people that [Netanyahu] built his coalition with," are trying to say that we lose nuance when we say that the government of Israel is Israel itself and thus cannot be criticized or questioned.

More generally, saying that there is a war means that there can be victory.  A former Israeli Vice Prime Minister referred repeatedly in a recent interview to what should be done "the day after."  The day after what?  She never said, but she clearly meant "the day after we've won the war against Hamas."  Just as too many people in the US signed onto the term "war on terror," this is another dangerous way of thinking about what is at stake.  Until the war is won, anything goes, it seems.  But by defining it that way, we guarantee that the "war" will never end.  Because there will never be a surrender ceremony attended by Hamas leadership, nor will there be any way to prove that any cessation of activity (should that occur) is not temporary and merely strategic -- to say nothing of the fact that many Hamas leaders are now in other countries -- there will be no day after.

When I write about fiscal policy, one of my constant complaints is the lack of nuance and context, leading to the idea that all debt is unacceptable.  I recently noted once again that there are very good reasons for governments to borrow money, which is one reason why debt scare-mongering is especially damaging.  In that column, I was making the point that comparing debt accumulation to crime rates ceded argumentative ground unnecessarily, because even when crime rates are low and going down, crimes are crimes -- and crimes are always bad.  Debt, however, can be good or bad.

Also, I did not use the phrase "war on crime" in that column, but that is another example of the misuse of the word "war" that has had decades-long consequences.  Crime will never go to zero, so the war on crime is never over, leading to a seemingly irreversible militarization of domestic police forces.

In the end, however, the rhetorical move is the same in sowing people's fears.  Why must we approve of the killing of innocents?  Because war.  Why must we approve of the impoverishment and unnecessary deaths of innocents?  Because debt.  And anyone who disagrees is an appeaser, wanting the terrorists to win or the country to suffer a debt crisis.  This is an old argument, of course, but fear works.  When people are not scared, it is possible to find something to scare them into making bad decisions.  And in the moments when people are already scared out of their senses, someone can always make it even worse and further scare them into bad decisions.

Thinking about all of this happening, so unnecessarily and so horribly, the most human response is to weep.