The Roots Of Economic Denialism

As evidence mounts that the U.S. economy is improving, President Obama's detractors in the conservative media have been reduced to fits of denial.

That the economy is improving is not in question.

Wednesday, the Bureau of Economic analysis estimated that the economy grew by 3 percent during the final three months of 2011, a sharp contrast from the 8.9 percent economic contraction during the three months before Obama took office. According to the most recent data from the U.S. Department of Labor, employers added 243,000 jobs in January. Private sector employment grew in 2011 at the fastest rate since 2005. Private estimates confirm that 2 million private sector jobs were created in 2011, compared to a loss of 3.6 million jobs in 2008. The stock market in 2012 is off to its best start since 1998.

That an improving economy is bad news for the right is made clear by the onset of economic denialism.

Economic denialism is what forced Rush Limbaugh to accuse Obama of “creating an absolute made-up, virtual economy,” and to proclaim that Obama was “hell-bent on destroying the economy.” Economic denialism is what led Dick Morris to dismiss the improving economy as a mirage created by “completely phony” statistics and declare: “There ain't no recovery.”

Economic denialism has its roots in comments Limbaugh made in January 2009, when he expressed his hope that Obama would fail. His statement was noteworthy in part because of its political message, but the aggressive effort to deny economic reality is tethered not to Limbaugh's political strategy, but to his rationale for hoping that Obama would fail:

LIMBAUGH: Look, what he's talking about is the absorption of as much of the private sector by the US government as possible, from the banking business, to the mortgage industry, to the automobile business, to health care. I do not want the government in charge of all of these things. I don't want this to work.

As much as he wanted Obama to fail for political reasons, Limbaugh needed Obama to fail in order to prop up a bankrupt economic philosophy that rejects any role for government in the economy.

Limbaugh's thesis -- that Obama wanted to permanently inject government into the economy -- is belied by the facts. The stimulus has wound down, which is actually creating a prolonged drag on the overall economy; GM went public in 2010, allowing the government to sharply reduce its role in the company.

The fact that government intervention succeeded in stabilizing the economy presents Limbaugh and his ilk with no options but to bury their heads in the sand.

While it has become dogmatic on the right to deny the positive impact the 2009 recovery act had on the economy, economists say that there was no plausible alternative to large fiscal stimulus. That stimulus is widely acknowledged to have added millions of jobs while boosting overall economic growth. Eighty-three percent of economists recently surveyed by the University of Chicago said that the stimulus lowered unemployment.

Equally inconvenient to the right's hope for failure has been the success of the U.S. auto industry. Limbaugh, after all, once chastised efforts to rescue the auto industry as a Democratic “power grab.”

But after a public investment to keep U.S. automakers from certain liquidation, General Motors has emerged as the world's best-selling automaker, having reported record profits last year. The Center for Automotive Research estimated that the public investment in the U.S. auto industry saved more than 1 million jobs.

That success has been problematic for the right. After Clint Eastwood proclaimed in a Super Bowl ad that Detroit was “showing us it can be done,” Limbaugh scoffed: “Puke city.”

In December 2010, Nobel laureate Paul Krugman persuasively argued: “Free-market fundamentalists have been wrong about everything -- yet they now dominate the political scene more than ever.” Krugman, who has argued from the start that the 2009 stimulus was too small to fill the gaping economic hole created by the financial crisis, explained:

Now, maybe it wasn't possible for President Obama to get more in the face of Congressional skepticism about government. But even if that's true, it only demonstrates the continuing hold of a failed doctrine over our politics.

Economic denialism exists precisely to defend that failed doctrine and ensure that its hold over politics persists.