When Did Optimism Become Uncool?

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.

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Jay is Editor In Chief of The Agonist, veteran and technologist.

12 CommentsLeave a comment

  • Earlier today this crossed my FB page, as I was reading it I was thinking one of the biggest problems is that everyone these days wants instant gratification and have little patience to think and work long term. Here is the link to C-span for video and text of Obama’s commencement speech at Howard University, instead of the reading the KOS diarist turning it into a Sander’s attack.

  • …the 1990s, a period some extol as the “good old days.”
      Anyone who considers the 1990s to be the Good Old Days is reading a different playbook than I’m familiar with. In the ’50s and 60s, a single wage earner could support a family and us salaried folks were considered almost wealthy or at least on our way there. Damn few families today can survive on one person’s wages and even the Salaried Class often have two people working. And it’s not always just because they want more goodies or a McMansion.

      One can, of course, ask for a definition of what constitutes ‘good’, if sheer income, goods and services are not your particular metric. I agree medical capabilities have improved, and that’s a plus. As far as crime reduction, that must be weighed against current over-aggressive policing, invasion of privacy and violations of Constitutional rights, from Civil Forfeiture to warrantless raids. Corporations are indeed more efficient at producing stuff, particularly unnecessary crap, very good at separating consumers from their money and excellent at eliminating [American} jobs but best at buying government.

      We still waste enormous sums killing people in many places, for the benefit of defense contractors and the already-wealthy.

      Personally, the best time of my life was when we still had vibrant communities (which I don’t see much today) and lots of personal interaction (as opposed to FB or Twitter). I grew up in a much less well-to-do environment, when most people were happy just to make do and the few who got wealthy were eyed with some suspicion. And the fact is that people were happier, more satisfied with life, more fulfilled and – yes – optimistic. .

      What changed? The right-wing politicians who fought FDR and LBJ and every progressive political process finally found their ideal hand-puppet, St. Ronnie. It’s been downhill ever since.

    • Ray, is it fair to assume that your background is tied to manufacturing jobs?

      Fot the IT sector the 90s were a golden age. Back then I went to business school in Rochester, NY and with my background I had no trouble getting a high paying internship at an IT consultancy’s R&D lab. They paid me big bucks for three months while I essentially just played around with the latest tech.

      Back in Germany I wrote two applications and got two offers. Certainly count myself lucky that I was able to comfortable support my wife and now family of five on a single salary ever since. Of course now I am jeopardizing this by starting my own company, but heck I guess I am just too much of an optimist

  • I would generally attribute the rise of pessimism to the rise of Internet-mediated communication and commentary. My particular view is that it happens today on the Internet, tomorrow in broadcast media, and the day after in print.

    My view, there a couple of mutually reinforcing factors (I’m sure there are more, but this is what leaps to mind):

    1. Negative stories are a lot easier to tell than positive ones and people are fundamentally pretty lazy.

    2. The pay runs from crap all the way down to negative (i.e., paying to do it). Factor one makes this particularly potent and explains much of factor three.

    3. Most of the optimists are actually out doing things. These days, one only does the online commentary gig to a significant extent if: a) somehow it actually does pay, b) it’s incidental to other activities that pay, or c) one is broken in some way and is either compulsive or has no better options.

    4. There’s a lot of bullshit artists out there. The number of commentators that I’ve seen, even on established and influential blogs (e.g., Pat Lang, Ian Welsh) who are flat out fabricators is non-trivial. They’re particularly problematic in situations where they successfully deceive the blog management (as they have in both of the above instances).

    5. The increasing role of Twitter and other short form heavy interactive media, combined with people refusing to pay for good media, is making people profoundly stupid. This becomes glaringly obvious when one follows authors’ twitter streams – increasingly commentary is basically a tweet packed with empty verbiage.

    • Very insightful observations.

      For my own part I am now much more optimistic than ten years ago (assuming the Donald can be kept away from the White House).

      In fact I am so optimistic I just quit my six digit salaried job to start my own thing.

      • It’s an interesting question how much damage someone like Trump can do in that position. It pains me to see folks pissing away hard earned strategic capital the way they have been – were we not next door and freer to operate as a middle power, I’d be a lot happier…

    • This would be a good example of what I’m talking about:


      Nowhere in the self-licking ice cream cone of journalism, blogging and commentary does anyone think to mention that levels of lead measured in the blood (which is the relevant outcome these policies are designed to drive) have been in consistent decline over the past thirty years! As an example, large scale monitoring shows the percentage of children with ≥10 μg/dL lead has dropped from nearly 8% to about half a percent between 1997 and 2014. Data from NHANES is consistent with this decline.

      Me, I think the key issue to focus on is why levels consistently vary by socioeconomic and racial status (e.g., http://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/mm6213a3.htm?s_cid=mm6213a3_e#tab1) but the ease and relative safety* of commentary like the above sucks all the oxygen out of the room.

      * Were one to take on the racial and socioeconomic inequality, one risks alienating the readership – which is disproportionally drawn from those same privileged segments.

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