A rare full article from the New York Times.
GIVEN Donald J. Trump’s virtual lock on the Republican presidential nomination, you’d think he’d be a bit more upbeat. Instead, his campaign began last summer with “our country is going to hell,” then declared, “we’re becoming a third world country,” and by this month had progressed to the United States “losing all the time.”
This election season, the impending apocalypse has been issue No. 1 for presidential aspirants on both sides. Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, said he was running “because the world is falling apart.” Senator Ted Cruz, Republican of Texas, declared the United States “near an abyss.” On the left, Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont says the economy has been “destroyed” for all but the wealthy few.
Presidential contenders are hardly alone in such bleak views. An April Gallup poll found that only 26 percent of Americans call themselves “satisfied” with “the way things are going” in the United States. It’s been this way for a while: January 2004, during the George W. Bush administration, was the last time a majority told Gallup they felt good about the nation’s course.
Yet a glance out the window shows blue sky. There are troubling issues, including the horror of mass shootings, but most American social indicators have been positive at least for years, in many cases for decades. The country is, on the whole, in the best shape it’s ever been in. So what explains all the bad vibes?
Social media and cable news, which highlight scare stories and overstate anger, bear part of the blame. So does the long-running decline in respect for the clergy, the news media, the courts and other institutions. The Republican Party’s strange insistence on disparaging the United States doesn’t help, either.
But the core reason for the disconnect between the nation’s pretty-good condition and the gloomy conventional wisdom is that optimism itself has stopped being respectable. Pessimism is now the mainstream, with optimists viewed as Pollyannas. If you don’t think everything is awful, you don’t understand the situation!
Objectively, the glass looks significantly more than half full.
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.
Manufacturing jobs described by Mr. Trump and Mr. Sanders as “lost” to China cannot be found there, or anywhere. As Charles Kenny of the nonpartisan Center for Global Development has shown, technology is causing factory-floor employment to diminish worldwide, even as loading docks hum with activity. This transition is jarring to say the least — but it was always inevitable. The evolution of the heavy-manufacturing sector away from workers and toward machines will not stop, even if international trade is cut off completely.
A century ago, most Americans worked in agriculture: Today hardly any do, and we’re all better off, including farmers. That manual labor, farm or factory, has given way to 60 percent of Americans employed in white-collar circumstances is the important story in the long term. But nothing is achieved by moaning about the past. The challenge is to create even more white-collar opportunities.
Though candidates on the right are full of fire and brimstone this year, the trend away from optimism is most pronounced among liberals. A century ago Progressives were the optimists, believing society could be improved, while conservatism saw the end-times approaching. Today progressive thought embraces Judgment Day, too. Climate change, inequality and racial tension are viewed not as the next round of problems to be solved, but as proof that the United States is horrible.
And yet developing the postindustrial economy — while addressing issues such as inequality, greenhouse emissions and the condition of public schools — will require optimism. Pessimists think in terms of rear-guard actions to turn back the clock. Optimists understand that where the nation has faults, it’s time to roll up our sleeves and get to work.
That’s why the lack of progressive optimism is so keenly felt. In recent decades, progressives drank too deeply of instant-doomsday claims. If their predictions had come true, today petroleum would be exhausted, huge numbers of major animal species would be extinct, crop failures would be causing mass starvation, developing-world poverty would be getting worse instead of declining fast. (In 1990, 37 percent of humanity lived in what the World Bank defines as extreme poverty; today it’s 10 percent.)
The lack of optimism in contemporary liberal and centrist thinking opens the door to Trump-style demagogy, since if the country really is going to hell, we do indeed need walls. And because optimism has lost its standing in American public opinion, past reforms — among them environmental protection, anti-discrimination initiatives, income security for seniors, auto and aviation safety, interconnected global economics, improved policing and yes, Obamacare — don’t get credit for the good they have accomplished.
In almost every case, reform has made America a better place, with fewer unintended consequences and lower transaction costs than expected. This is the strongest argument for the next round of reforms. The argument is better made in positive terms — which is why we need a revival of optimism.
Recently Warren Buffett said that because of the “negative drumbeat” of politics, “many Americans now believe their children will not live as well as they themselves do. That view is dead wrong: The babies being born in America today are the luckiest crop in history.” This was not Nebraska folk wisdom; rather, it’s sophisticated analysis. The optimistic view is that it’s still morning in America, and if we fix what’s wrong, the best is yet to come. Such can-do, better-future thinking needs to make an appearance in the 2016 presidential campaign.