The scariest part of the economic crisis is the US government's wild resort to the politics of fear.
"A failure to act, and act now, will turn crisis into a catastrophe and guarantee a longer recession, a less robust recovery, and a more uncertain future," declared President Barack Obama on Feb. 4. "Millions more jobs will be lost. More businesses will be shuttered. More dreams will be deferred."
He was, of course, pitching his economic stimulus package, details of which he left to the House of Representatives to work out.
His message: Congress must pass something, anything, because something, anything, is better than nothing.
Is that true?
The House obliged Obama by passing an $825 billion agglomeration of spending measures, tax breaks, and political favors, the economic misdirection of which is manifest in a "buy America" initiative that made trading partners discuss retaliation.
When the Senate began work on its version of "stimulus," the price tag jumped to $900 billion. Whether the Senate would follow the House lead and opportunistically incorporate health-care reform and other items of Democratic aspiration was, at this writing, unclear.
The priority seems to be immediate commitment to mammoth, miscellaneous spending, to be elaborated on web sites dedicated to "transparency" only after the fiscal jeopardy has been rendered inescapable.
This is insane. With the government acting this way, can there be any question why businesses are expecting the worst and shedding workers?
Of course the economy needs stimulus. Of course the government has a role.
Yet it's painfully clear that the government has no clue about what that role should be—other than to try to frighten Americans into believing that it must do something, anything, right now and not a day later.
It's too late to raise the question, but could inaction be that much worse than a frantic disgorgement of borrowed billions, the stimulative effects of which are questionable?
It's definitely not too late for Americans to tell their leaders to quit trying to scare them into support for fiscal recklessness.
Economic peril warrants urgency. But panic makes serious problems, including sloppy governance, worse.
(Online Feb. 6, 2009; author's e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org)