You may not know it, but you never had it so good. So says Gregg Easterbrook, who marshals an impressive array of statistics that paint a decidedly rosy picture of life in today’s America.
And yet, Easterbrook bemoans the fact that, on the right and on the left, American politicians are attracting massive audiences by saying that America is in decline, that America is becoming weaker and poorer, that America has lost its way and that America is suffering from a myriad of social and cultural ills.
To which Easterbrook, suffering from a distinct lack of imagination, responds that if Americans are more pessimistic, the reason must be that optimism has gone out of fashion, that it has become uncool. In so saying he is disrespecting their judgment and pretending that he has a monopoly on truth and reality.
According to Easterbrook, the fault lies with the mass media and the social media. Where have I heard that before? Better yet, where haven’t I heard that before? It turns out that the media are chock-a-block with stories about all the bad things that are happening. So, people think that things are bad, and getting worse.
They are so pessimistic and so gloomy that they do not even pay attention to the oracle of Omaha, one Warren Buffett, when he tells them that things have never been better and that they are getting better every day.
To be fair to Easterbrook, I will share some of his evidence. You will decide whether it is dispositive or cherry-picked?
Job growth has been strong for five years, with unemployment now below where it was for most of the 1990s, a period some extol as the “good old days.” The American economy is No. 1 by a huge margin, larger than Nos. 2 and 3 (China and Japan) combined. Americans are seven times as productive, per capita, as Chinese citizens. The dollar is the currency the world craves — which means other countries perceive America’s long-term prospects as very good.
Pollution, discrimination, crime and most diseases are in an extended decline; living standards, longevity and education levels continue to rise. The American military is not only the world’s strongest, it is the strongest ever. The United States leads the world in science and engineering, in business innovation, in every aspect of creativity, including the arts. Terrorism is a serious concern, but in the last 15 years, even taking into account Sept. 11, an American is five times more likely to be hit by lightning than to be killed by a terrorist.
Is the middle class in dire straits, as Mr. Sanders contends? Yes, inflation-adjusted middle-class household income peaked in 1998 and has dropped slightly since. But during the same period, federal income taxes on the middle class went down, while benefits went up. Gary Burtless of the Brookings Institution has shown that when lower taxes and higher benefits are factored in, middle-class buying power has risen 36 percent in the current generation.
Is American manufacturing in free fall, as Mr. Sanders and Mr. Trump assert? Figures from the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis show industrial output a tad below an all-time record level, while nearly double the output of the Reagan presidency, another supposed golden age. It’s just that advancing technology allows more manufacturing with fewer workers — a change unrelated to foreign competition.
If the statistics say one thing and you believe something else, well then, we can conclude that one of you is wrong. It need not be you; it need not be the statistics. After all, we recall the old saying, whose author seems to be unknown, apparently first stated in 1891:
It has been wittily remarked that there are three kinds of falsehood: the first is a 'fib,' the second is a downright lie, and the third and most aggravated is statistics.
Statistics notwithstanding, precious few Americans believe that their nation is on the right track. Precious few are happy with the way things are. Looking at these poll results you should ask yourself whether the statistics are cherry-picked to cover up a reality that people see in their everyday lives.
True enough, the stock market is up. Some real estate is up, but much real estate has not yet returned to pre-crash levels. One would like to know how many people are still under water on their mortgages.
Interest rates are scraping the bottom, but that reflects Federal Reserve policy. But, the nation is being kept afloat on borrowed money, and the Obama recovery has been anemic, at best. Let’s not forget that over the past seven years the nation has lost status and stature and prestige, that Islamist terrorists are controlling large swaths of the Middle East and are now invading Europe, that America itself is suffering an invasion of undocumented aliens, who are welcomed by the current administration and whose presence is surely transforming the culture.
And let’s not forget the cultural tyranny exercised by the current administration, not to mention the constant lies, about Obamacare and about the Iran deal, that have been foisted on the American people.
True enough, Iran is not going to nuke Tel Aviv tomorrow, but the American people understand that the goal of the Obama administration is to run out the clock on foreign relations, leaving others to sort out its messes and, naturally, to take the blame. The American people are not shortsighted. They are not blinding themselves to reality when they foresee the potential disasters that might befall the nation after the Obama presidency.
On the surface, and to the extent that statistics can measure them, things in America don’t look very bad at all. And yet, as other nations are growing in power and influence, America seems to be declining. It seems to be more interested in apologizing and in losing wars than it is in winning. America has suffered serial humiliations on the world stage. If people are demoralized they have reason to be demoralized.
Moreover, America’s social order has been fraying. The number of intact families has been seriously declining. The nation has increasingly been divided according to race. Black Lives Matter protesters have made a mockery of free inquiry and open debate on many college campuses. A bakery was put out of business because it did not want to bake a certain wedding cake. By all appearances, the nation has lost its sense of shame and cannot stop talking about sex. We are not only weaker, with a shrinking military and a lesser reputation. But, we have become a decadent nation, one that cares more for pleasure seeking than for hard work.
The school system and the great universities have become, in many cases, indoctrination mills. The nation is awash in diversity preferences, for everyone except white males. We are engaged in a great debate about transgendered restrooms… and you think that everything is great in America.
It might look good on the surface, but the social order and the culture are rotting from within.
One might say that things in France looked pretty good during the reign of Louis XV, but his mistress, the Marquise de Pompadour foresaw the future when she reportedly said: Après nous le deluge.
For all we know and for all Easterbrook knows, the people who are pessimistic about America’s present and America’s future know something. Rather than trot out a bunch of statistics that make them all look like fools, we should consider that they might all be right. I am not saying that they are necessarily right, but disrespecting their judgment about their experience merely makes you look like an arrogant twit.
One understands that today’s cognitive therapists have decided that it is good to look at the world through rose colored glasses. Having discovered that people who are depressed tend to be pessimistic, they have declared the cure to be optimism. And they want to generate such optimism by collecting data that would tend to show that things are not as bad as they appear to be. It makes some sense.
Sadly enough, they have misunderstood the basis for cognitive therapy. The homework exercises that Aaron Beck concocted to treat depression do not tell you to write down all the facts that would disprove a pessimistic attitude. They tell you to write down both the facts that would give credence to your pessimism and the facts that would give credence to optimism. The key is to find balance, not to blindly face the future with a “What Me Worry?” attitude. It’s not about happy talk and about generating good moods, but about being judicious in one’s judgment, seeing the good and the bad and acting accordingly.