It’s amazing, but there are still conservative economists, politicians, and others on the right that are paranoid about the threat inflation poses to the economy. In fact, just recently there were several articles online about how billionaires are leaving the market and how “we’re heading for a crisis worse that 2007.” What do both have in common? For one, as you read them it becomes more and more clear that they’re trying to scare you in order to sell you something. Two, they’re wrong about how and why inflation happens.
Let’s start with number two first, since it’s the most straightforward. Inflation occurs when there is too much money chasing too few goods and/or services. That may be a tad simplistic, but it will serve our purposes today, because the basic reason we won’t have inflation anytime soon is that most Americans don’t have any money. For anyone who’s seen a graph of wealth distribution in the U.S., this makes perfect sense. You see, we can’t spend money that we don’t have, and since 80% of all Americans own only 7-12% of all the wealth (estimates vary depending on the methodology), it’s hard to see a situation in which there would be too much money chasing too few goods. Moreover, many of those same Americans have considerable debts to pay off, which further depresses spending, especially when you crunch the numbers and look at the fact that the age groups with the most debt—those under 44—are also those most likely to be in the market for houses, cars, furniture, appliances, etc. And together, young Americans owe a collective $1.1 trillion dollars in student loan debt. That’s money that could be spent buying things, but is instead siphoned off to banks and/or the government.
What all of this means is that even though the Fed has been pumping money into the system by buying private debts, housing agency debts, and government bonds, inflation can’t occur for two reasons: 1) the current level of low inflation makes it harder to pay off debt, and more importantly, 2) “the economy’s persistent weakness keeps workers from bargaining for higher wages and forces many businesses to cut prices.” In other words, because of high unemployment, low wages, the incredibly unequal distribution of wealth, student loans, and other forms of debt, demand/consumer spending is depressed. Indeed, if anything, there’s too little money to buy the goods that we’re producing, and it’s hard to foresee that changing anytime soon given current government policies.
But that doesn’t mean fanning the fears of their audience doesn’t serve the purposes of the right wing media and their advertisers. They know that their audience is emotionally attached to conservatism and the Republican Party, and conversely, they know that their audience dislikes liberals and Democrats, and is extremely biased against the government. Knowing this, they report the news in a way that reflects the ideology of their consumers, in some cases blatantly distorting, lying about, or omitting information, because it produces a marketable result: fear.
Now some readers are probably asking themselves, “wait a second, couldn’t the same thing be said about liberal news outlets, like say, MSNBC or the Huffington Post?” Sure, it could, and to the extent that liberal viewers tune into left-leaning media sources because they cover news in a way that pleases them, it’s very similar. But there are some key differences with respect to ideology. That’s because conservatives are often motivated by fear, whereas liberals are generally motivated by change.
For example, think about some of our current issues: the national debt, taxes, foreign policy, abortion, religion, health care, immigration, etc. On just about every issue, fear motivates the conservative position. The key provision for Republicans on the new immigration bill is a fence on the border and a lot more money for guards and security. On foreign policy, they’re willing to forgo the Eighth Amendment outlawing torture, if that gives the CIA more leverage to fight terror; the same could be said of the Fourth Amendment and the NSA data collection leak by Snowden—many Republicans have come out in support of the government’s right to spy on us in the name of national security. And, as shown earlier, there is great fear on the conservative side on fiscal issues like inflation and the national debt. Finally, one word: Obamacare. Clearly, there is a strong link between the emotion of fear and conservative beliefs about politics.
On the other hand, look at the liberal positions on these issues: on immigration, a path to citizenship and inclusion in U.S. society. As for the debt, most liberals would just as soon spend money to stimulate the economy. On foreign policy, liberals are opposed to torture, and most are also opposed to the government spying on us, even if that puts us at a slightly greater risk for terrorism. And though many liberals would have preferred a single payer solution to health care, they’re generally supportive of Obamacare. Motivation varies from issue to issue, but what ties them together is change: the idea that changing policies, laws, etc. is generally good.
Now think of two consumers: one motivated by fear, the other by change. Who is easier to sell to? The person motivated by fear of course. Think of the number of products on the market that alleviate, assuage, or ease people’s fears: insect spray, acne cream, makeup, diet pills, alcohol, alarm systems, fashionable clothing, firearms, and the list goes on. On the other hand, the number of products that change society’s structure or government policies, are, aside from bumper stickers and media itself, fairly limited.
The point is, a consumer who is afraid is an easy target, because capitalism offers any number of products that address our fears. So even though liberals and conservatives are attracted to media that gives them the news they want to hear in the way they want to hear it, the motivation of that media to emotionally manipulate their message and their audience is vastly different. In addition, it’s a hell of a lot easier to scare someone than it is to convince them to support a fundamental change in government policy, and it’s also why right wing media gets away with misleading (read: lying to) their consumers in a way that liberal media can’t.
For example, if someone tells you there’s a man with a gun hiding behind your garage, it’s natural to feel scared, whether it’s true or not. And, when right wing media can couple that feeling with a strand of conservative ideology, say the ownership of guns, it accomplishes two objectives: 1) it reaffirms that person’s world view as being correct and/or superior to others, and 2) it creates a marketable fear—in this case, for buying guns.
And this is why right wing media attempts to convince their consumers that inflation is eminent. For one, it plays into their belief that Obama’s fiscal policies have failed, which massages their ideology, but more importantly, it makes them afraid for their financial future, making them easy targets for people selling gold, rare coins, investment strategies, and/or books with “all the answers.”
In sum, it’s quite simple. Conservative ideology is motivated by fear, conservative media reports the news in a way that fits their ideology and causes people to be afraid, and then those people are more likely to buy products that allay their fears. Worse, conservatives are constantly told that any information that is not from right wing media is a not true. Think for a moment, about what a mental trap that is: if you don’t like a piece of information, an assertion, or an argument, IT MUST BE WRONG.
The question then, is under what possible circumstances would conservatives ever be willing to admit they’re wrong or change their minds on an issue? In a sense, there aren’t any. And therein lies the problem. It doesn’t matter that they’re being manipulated by their media for the purpose of selling products, because that media has created a monopoly, in the conservative mind, on information.
Liberal media, on the other hand, can’t do this, because changing governmental policy doesn’t lend itself to selling products, and convincing someone that change is necessary rests on the credibility of the argument; in other words, lying about, omitting, or twisting information doesn’t work in a liberal media format, because you can’t get someone to agree with you about policy changes if they don’t trust you or your information is bad.
To be perfectly honest, that conservative’s are motivated by fear and liberals by change is nothing new, and usually there isn’t anything wrong with it: when considering how to govern ourselves, we need some people to advocate change, and we need some people to question that change so that the changes we do finally agree to are necessary and prudent. The problem is that because right wing media has a financial incentive to keep their consumers both afraid and isolated, and because that fear is ALWAYS attributed to Democrats, outsiders (immigrants, Muslims, etc.), and/or liberal ideology, conservatives are radically opposed to any policy or compromise that acknowledges any other beliefs than their own.
The hope is that being confronted with the fact that they are being USED and MANIPULATED in this way will break some of them free from their allegiance to right wing media, because in the end, our nation has to get past this gridlock if we want to remain the most powerful country and economy in the world. United we stand, divided we fall, and right now, the link between fear, conservative ideology, and money, are keeping us divided.