We Don’t Have a Wealth Problem. We Have a Math Problem.

Pedestrians walk past a bus shelter where an electronic billboard and a poster display the current U.S. national debt on July 5, 2023 in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Jemal Countess/Getty Images)

As a wise man once observed, “When you look long into the abyss, the abyss looks into your credit rating.”

There is a style of political argument—a bad style—that goes like this: “The issue I care about the most involves an existential threat, so, in effect, my issue is the only issue that matters.” Some examples: It isn’t going to matter very much whether we fix trade policy if climate change kills us all. Nobody is going to be talking about banks’ capital requirements once the nuclear missiles start flying

Sometimes, this style is deployed as a means of deflection: We don’t have time to talk about the Biden family’s corrupt influence-peddling racket when Donald Trump is preparing to inaugurate a police state. Every Republican presidential candidate of my lifetime has been labeled “the most radical” and “the most dangerous” candidate ever. That boy-who-cried-wolf stuff is part of the reason (not the only part) Trump is able to shake off so much legitimate criticism—illegitimate criticism and hysteria have inured some Republican partisans to such criticism in a genuine way, while cynical demagogues can get a lot of mileage out of saying, “Sure, that’s what they’re saying about Trump, but they also blamed Mitt Romney for a woman’s cancer death.” 

On Mondays, Wednesday, and Fridays, George H.W. Bush was a “wimp,” while on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays, he was a ruthless murderer, a war criminal who had strafed Japanese lifeboats as a pilot in World War II. (On Sundays, The McLaughlin Group debated whether he was a wimp or a ruthless murderer.) You should read the stuff they said about Dwight Eisenhower. The effectiveness of the existential-threat mode of argument is why every election—and, especially, every presidential election—gets talked about in Manichean terms. And it is why so many advocates insist that their issue is the Big One.

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