On March 4, 1933, millions of Americans sat beside their radios listening to Franklin Delano Roosevelt delivering his first inaugural address, in which he famously declared that "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself." (Joe Biden thinks he watched the speech on television, but that's the subject for an essay in Current Psychiatry, and this is American Thinker.) FDR gave Americans the confidence and courage to cope with the Great Depression, which is among the reasons he's one of our very greatest presidents.
I hate to say this, but right now the only thing that can save our country is -- fear itself. Our government is bankrupt, its deficit is insurmountable, and at both the federal and state levels, we've run up more debt than can possibly be repaid. This isn't a political thing; it's a numbers thing. Either everything I've ever learned about math and economics is wrong, or we're on the verge of going down. The only possible way to come through safely -- and even so, the odds are against us -- will be to frighten ourselves so badly that we'll be willing to do things that in normal times we simply could not imagine doing.
Let me use a little story to illustrate the effect of fear on human behavior: Every so often my wife and I look at each other and agree that it's time to clear out our closets. We're not big shoppers, but even so, the amount of stuff we accumulate is appalling. Well, we never quite get the job done. It isn't an emergency; there's always room to squeeze in one more pair of shoes or sports jacket, and besides, one day we may actually go to Hawaii, and I'll want that ghastly shirt my mother bought me 35 years ago.
Now imagine that my wife and I actually are en route to Hawaii, and halfway across the Pacific, the pilot tells us over the intercom that there's a bad leak in the fuel tanks: "I hate to say this, ladies and gentleman, but we've done the calculations up here on the flight deck and it looks like we won't make it. As I see it, there's just one chance -- it's a slim chance, but it's all we've got. If we throw everything we possibly can out the hatch -- and I mean everything, every item, every ounce -- we just might lighten the load enough for our remaining fuel to bring us in."
Reader, in thirty seconds we'd be pulling our suitcases out of the overhead bins and taking off our clothes. If we believed our lives depended on lightening the load, there isn't one thing we own -- not one -- that we'd hang onto. (Well, except for my iPad...)
A Word from the Co-Pilot
Now imagine that just as we and the other passengers are stripping off and handing everything to the crew members manning the aft hatch, there's a second announcement from the flight deck: "Ladies and gentlemen, this is the co-pilot. I've done my own calculations, and I don't think the fuel leak is all that serious. If we just lighten the load a bit, and gain some altitude, we'll have no trouble making a safe and on-time landing."
What? How is it possible that the pilot and co-pilot can reach such different conclusions with the same data? And whom are we passengers supposed to believe? My guess is that most of us will choose to believe the co-pilot and go back to whatever we were doing -- reading, snoozing, watching a movie -- when the pilot scared us half to death. We won't want to even consider the possibility that the pilot is correct and that the co-pilot is wrong, or perhaps even lying to us.
And this is the political jam we're in. It's obvious to anyone who's looked honestly at the numbers that we're about to go down into a sea of red ink. You don't need a Nobel Prize in economics to understand this. All you need is a simple, back-of-the-envelope calculation to see that the federal government is hemorrhaging money so fast our economy must inevitably seize up, which will crash the dollar overseas and turn a national disaster into a global catastrophe. The financial situation is even worse in states like California and New York.
And when all this happens, as it must, the unemployment rate will soar beyond its current miserable level. Millions of working-age Americans will lose both their jobs and their homes, and millions of retired Americans will lose the pensions they believed were guaranteed and which they depend upon to get through each month. The nation's health care system will collapse for lack of money no matter what plans the politicians in Washington, D.C., Sacramento, and Albany concoct. And our children's generation will be condemned to a standard of living far below what we've enjoyed and come to believe is our right.
Yet with very few exceptions -- hats off to Senator Tom Coburn and to the Deficit Commission's two co-chairmen for their straight, blunt talk -- our political leaders refuse to tell us how bad things really are. They just keep throwing sand in our eyes so we cannot see the numbers clearly. Democrats insist that nothing is really wrong, and that everything would be even better if only "the rich" would pay "their fair share" of taxes. Republicans generally admit there's a problem, but in the next breath, they assure us that with just a bit of tweaking here and there, we'll be okay.
Baloney. We're going down, and it's going to be a ghastly mess. Indeed, the compromise tax bill these clowns came up with last week will actually increase the federal debt by $1 trillion in the coming two years.
And that's why the only thing that can possibly save us now is fear itself. Not until the majority of voters are so frightened by what lies ahead that they will support belt-tightening policies that right now seem intolerable, and vote into office candidates who cannot get elected now because of one imperfection or another -- but who have the technical skill and moral courage to make the necessary spending cuts -- will we have even a chance of landing safely.
Last Words from Lindsey Graham
For obvious reasons, the Democrats won't be willing to frighten voters. Alas, neither will those of our elected officials who belong to the GOP establishment. (As we plunge into that sea of red ink, the last words we'll hear on Earth will be from Lindsey Graham, telling us how proud and honored he is to have a good working relationship with Harry Reid.) So who's left to save us? The Tea Party, that's who. These are the Americans with their heads on straight, who've done the math and who understand how close we are right now to catastrophe. These are the men and women who can find and support candidates who won't play political games, won't agree to compromises that merely delay the inevitable -- and who will have the courage to tell voters just how bad things really are.
I believe the majority of Americans will respond well to this kind of apocalyptic politics. But I've been around long enough to know that not everyone will be willing or able to face reality. And if this proves to be the case, things are going to get very nasty very fast. Let's return one more time to my little parable about the airplane with the leaking fuel tanks: Most of us have tossed everything out the hatch, and we're in nothing but our underwear. But there's a chap across the aisle who hasn't moved a muscle. He's sitting there reading Tom Clancy's latest two-pound thriller; he's got a seventeen-inch laptop in the seat-back pouch and a backpack under his feet. When we ask him to help us lighten the load, he tells us to get lost. Believe me -- the rest of us will have his stuff out the hatch in a minute, and if the idiot resists, we'll toss him out the hatch and lighten the load by another two hundred pounds.
Let's hope that things don't get this rough politically, and let's keep in mind that the surest way to avoid this sort of nastiness will be to quit playing political games now and to start creating the majority we'll need to save ourselves.
None of us likes the idea of going out and frightening our neighbors. But fear is a powerful motivator, and sometimes using it is the only way to make people face reality. We're very nearly out of time, but this is still the United States, and we Americans have always managed to accomplish the impossible just when it seemed that all hope was lost. Can we pull off the impossible one more time? To borrow a phrase from one of the few politicians who may have the courage and common sense to bring us in for a safe landing -- you betcha.
Herbert E. Meyer served during the Reagan administration as special assistant to the director of central intelligence and vice chairman of the CIA's National Intelligence Council. He is the author of How to Analyze Information and The Cure for Poverty.