01/14/2013 09:14 am ET Updated Mar 16, 2013

The False Prophets of Dysfunction

I've been pretty committed to NOT writing about the debt ceiling debacle. Not that it isn't portentous -- for the U.S. government to default, either on its sovereign debt or any other of its contractual obligations would be a disaster, a much deeper self-inflicted wound than the fiscal cliff. But it's another massive key-dangle, ye olde magic trick where you get your audience to look over there instead of where the real action's taking place. In this case, that's the real economy, where Congress continues its political malpractice of not just ignoring the fragile expansion, but of threatening to take it from fragile to broken.

But reading this Wall Street Journal column this AM, I'm reminded of a particularly pernicious rule of today's politics: the self-fulfilling prophecy of dysfunction. Many of today's conservatives run for office on a platform that government doesn't work. And when they're elected, they work their hardest to prove it true. They say, "we're Greece!" when of course we're nothing like Greece, then they threaten default to make us Greece.

This is an alarmingly simple ploy, but once you tune into it you see it everywhere. The prophets of dysfunction must convince us that we have a spending crisis, an entitlement crisis, and debt crisis despite their factual inaccuracies. It there's no crisis -- if, as is clearly the case -- our fiscal challenges can actually be met with reasonable policies involving analysis (e.g., squeezing inefficiencies out of health care delivery) and compromise (spending cuts and revenue increases), these hair-on-fire-slash-and-burners have no use.

An important job of progressives throughout history is the exposure of such false prophets. Of course, these prophets have huge profits riding on their ruse, so they won't leave quietly. But we must expose them nevertheless. Our system is broken because a broken system works for the false prophets of dysfunction. It doesn't work for the rest of us.

This post originally appeared at Jared Bernstein's On The Economy blog.