The Level of Pessimism


Even for a cynic such as myself, the level of pessimism being thrown around currently seems absurdly high.

It is, of course, it is normal for the out of power party candidate to say that we need to change things, but Trump’s declarations that America is “crippled;” has been demoted to the Third World; and that minorities have never had it worse, are, I would say, absurd.  But these ideas seem to resonate, even among those who would never pull the lever for Trump.

A recent poll among millenials found that 52 percent feel the nation is “falling behind” and 24 percent believe the U.S. is “failing.”  A quarter of young people think the country is “failing?”  This strikes me as not just living up to youthful aspirations.  “Failing” is a whole ‘nother ball of wax.

I am genuinely flummoxed by this phenomenon that seems to not just be affecting our youth, but people of all ages.

Youth might be excused for their assessment in that they might be said to lack a sense of history.  But many Trump supporters are my age or older and should be well aware that while these may not be the very best of times, they are far, far from the worst.

I was shocked to read this from Robert M. Price, one of  our own yesterday.  He is planning to vote for Trump because of Trump’s “sweeping plans to undo as much as possible of the ruination visited on our country by Obama and Clinton with their Political Correctness (which I call “the Sharia of the Left”), their eroding of traditional values, their inhumane advocacy of abortion, their “world citizen” Globalism, their blind eye to Islamism, etc.”

Ruination of our country?  Really?

Now, clearly I am on the other side of the political spectrum from Dr. Price, but even during the Bush years I would have never used the word “ruination.”  That is even keeping in mind that the Bush years featured the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression and the most prolonged war since Viet Nam.  By any rational measures, things have gotten much better since then.  But we are in ruins?  Really Dr. Price?

To cherry pick some numbers from FactCheck.org:  The S&P 500 is up 165% since Obama took office, 10 million jobs have been added, 15 million additional people have health insurance, job openings are up 109%, and exports of goods and services are up 27 percent.  To be sure there are some not so good numbers there as well, homeownership is down slightly and incomes have not risen very much, but that hardly counts as “ruination.”

My purpose in using those numbers is not to credit Obama directly with any of those results, but just to show that, in fact, things are certainly improving.  By any historical measure we are doing pretty well.

The Black Lives Matter protests do not hold a candle to the riots of the mid 60s.  In the same way that our current problems with policing pale in comparison to Bull Connor and his ilk.  Our issues with ISIS are not in the same league as our struggles against Fascism and Nazism.  Putin in Crimea does not yet compare to the Cold War.  Lehman Brothers collapse was not Black Friday.  Historically, these will be remembered as rather placid times, I think.

Even the much maligned manufacturing segment of the economy is actually doing pretty well.  Let us remember that the term “Rust Belt” became common in the 1980s — almost 40 years ago!  Back then, it was the Japanese that were going to destroy our economy, not the Chinese.

The map from the Wikipedia page for “rust belt” shown below, indicates that Wisconsin mostly added total_mfctrg_jobs_change_54-02manufacturing jobs in the period 1954-2002.  Added!  Looking at the map, some hardest hit areas for manufacturing loss run from Philadelphia to Boston.  Yes, the poor Metroplex must be destitute!  Or they replaced manufacturing with financial services and are richer than ever.  Manufacturing output is higher than it was in 1990, no matter what Trump might lead you to believe.

Another thing I often hear is that the American Dream is dead, the kids are no longer better off than their parents.  I can say for me, this has been true for four generations now, if we just look at professions.  My great-grandfather was a white collar worker for a municipal gas company.  My grandfather was a white collar salesman of industrial equipment (he did not knock on doors!), my father was a sales manager for national companies.  I am a teacher like my mother.  Four generations of middle, middle class professions.  And no matter what our relative salaries were, I am much better off than my great-grandfather and grandfather.

The housing of the middle class is much better now than it was in the 50s or certainly the 30s.  My $6,000 used car is way better than anything they ever drove.  A smartphone in every pocket and a computer on every desk is clearly better than three TV networks and late night baseball on the radio.  The quality of life of the middle class, even the lower middle class has improved by light years since when my parents grew up.

So, I really don’t know where the pessimism is coming from.  Yes, Fox News and the churches want people to think things are worse than ever because fearful people are easier to control.  But there is so much more doom and gloom hanging in the air than that.

Where does it come from?  I would really like to hear your ideas.

Comments

  1. invivoMark says

    If Millennials think that the US is failing, it’s because we’re aware. We’ve seen that the US has failed to create a police force that doesn’t murder its own citizens. We’ve seen the disastrous effects of the War on Drugs, giving the US the highest incarceration rate in the world. We’ve watched as a town in Michigan was poisoned with lead. We’ve watched as trillions of dollars have been spent on pointless foreign wars, and multi-billion-dollar arms deals are made with third-world dictators, subsidized by our own money. We watched as our government spied on us and tapped our phones without warrants. Our country hires torturers, illegally imprisons foreigners in overseas prisons, commits war crimes with impunity, and protects those who commit these crimes while prosecuting those who expose them.

    And yeah, not all of these things are new. But our country has given us a failed two-party political system where neither party wants to fix any of the above. We saw our own voices ignored in the primaries, and we’re not allowed to fix any of the above. Our country is failing, and it has been since it started.

    Furthermore, the prevalence of support for Trump indicates another facet in which the US has failed: it has failed to create an educated and informed populace, one which will reject racism and scapegoat-ism. Mainstream media is one of the biggest failures of recent history.

    But the economy’s okay, right? We can all just buy a house and a car and listen to podcasts on our smartphones, right? Well, as long as we’re not serious about buying that house. Housing is much more expensive relative to income than it used to be, especially in big cities where most of the jobs are.

    http://www.economist.com/blogs/graphicdetail/2016/08/daily-chart-20
    http://www.mybudget360.com/the-magical-2-housing-ratio-between-median-nationwide-home-prices-and-household-income/

    And the economy has “recovered” and jobs have been “created,” but that doesn’t fix the growing income inequality of the last several decades.

    https://econographics.files.wordpress.com/2012/10/income-by-quintile.jpg

    And it doesn’t help those in poverty, since the poverty rate has been stagnant or increasing over the last four decades.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Poverty_in_the_United_States

    Things will probably be fine for me. I’m a white middle-class male, and while science funding has also been stagnant and more and more scientists are being pushed out of jobs, I will probably be fine for a while. But I see that the US has failed for so, so many people. And there’s not a damn thing I can do about it. That’s why I’m pessimistic, and it’s why so many people from my generation are pessimistic.

    • says

      I agree with many of those things, especially the income inequality, which is the only “new” item I see on your list. All of those things, in my estimation have been issues for over 100 years now. We have made progress on tons of issues. Marriage equality has more support now than interracial marriage did when the Supreme Court Allowed it. The eastern Great Lakes were dead. Much better now. Even though there is a long way to go, government and coporate governance is much more transparent. Progress is incremental and the conservatives do knock it back from time to time, but it does go on.

  2. cedrus says

    As a Millennial, I think there’s a lot of frustration out there. Many of us loaded up on college loans, because we were told that was our ticket to the middle class, and then graduated right as the Great Recession took hold. We’re struggling to find our place. And we’re watching our government refuse to do anything at all, besides repeal Obamacare for the 90th time, out of fear the black guy in the Oval Office might get credit for doing something useful. And we’re watching this behavior get cheered on by what is terrifyingly close to half the population. We are not pleased. It’s less “things are awful” and “things could be so much better, but they aren’t”.

    • says

      I can certainly see those things. I will say that the idea of college being a ticket to the middle class was probably always over rated. Yes, college grads make more, but much of those increased earnings go to those with professional degrees. On the other hand I ran into someone the other day who is substitute teaching and says she has something like $50K in student. I would say that someone who paid $50K for college to become a public school teacher didn’t, well, do their homework before they made that decision.

      OK, so things could be better. How? I personally feel that the income gap is our biggest problem. If you agree how would you fix it?

  3. Jake Harban says

    It is, of course, it is normal for the out of power party candidate to say that we need to change things, but Trump’s declarations that America is “crippled;” has been demoted to the Third World; and that minorities have never had it worse, are, I would say, absurd.

    Only the third declaration is absurd. The middle one is ringing increasingly true, and the first is too vague to mean anything.

    To cherry pick some numbers from FactCheck.org: The S&P 500 is up 165% since Obama took office, 10 million jobs have been added, 15 million additional people have health insurance, job openings are up 109%, and exports of goods and services are up 27 percent. To be sure there are some not so good numbers there as well, homeownership is down slightly and incomes have not risen very much, but that hardly counts as “ruination.”

    Those numbers may be correct, but they are completely and utterly meaningless.

    Stock going up only benefit rich people who make a hefty chunk of income through rent-seeking. Stock prices were a proxy for the general state of the economy in times gone by, but this is no longer the case; stocks have recovered from the 2008 crash, but the rest of the economy is still stagnant.

    10 million “jobs” may have been added, but they’re all some combination of part time, minimum wage, or reliant on specific technical skills (eg, electrician). Millions of people are unemployed or underemployed as a result. Even for people with decent jobs, wages are going down and work hours are going up when adjusted for inflation and productivity.

    15 million people may have health “insurance” but there’s no guarantee that insurance is worth anything. Moreover, this number is almost certainly inflated; prior to the ACA, most people with insurance got it through work, so that number includes people who lost their insurance with their jobs but got it back under the ACA.

    Exports may be up, but that has absolutely no direct impact on people’s daily lives.

    The Black Lives Matter protests do not hold a candle to the riots of the mid 60s.

    That’s not necessarily a good thing.

    Our issues with ISIS are not in the same league as our struggles against Fascism and Nazism.

    That’s not really a meaningful comparison. The second world war was a fight between sides at least in the same league. Our “issues” with ISIS are colonialism— America the sole superpower oppressing countries completely unable to fight back. It’s less intense and far less likely to impact white Americans directly, but it’s basically never ending.

    Putin in Crimea does not yet compare to the Cold War.

    Again, not a meaningful comparison. In its day, the Cold War was the big pressing issue facing the world; today, it’s global warming. That one big pressing issue has been supplanted by another is not necessarily an improvement, and comparing the former pressing issue to the displaced remnant of it currently existing is cheating.

    Lehman Brothers collapse was not Black Friday.

    Which Black Friday were you referring to here?

    The housing of the middle class is much better now than it was in the 50s or certainly the 30s. My $6,000 used car is way better than anything they ever drove. A smartphone in every pocket and a computer on every desk is clearly better than three TV networks and late night baseball on the radio.

    That’s technological innovation.

    That technology will progress even as the economy falters and democracy collapses is pretty much inevitable. Using improved technology to counter claims of economic malaise, loss of freedom, and lack of prospects is definitely cheating.

    So, I really don’t know where the pessimism is coming from. Yes, Fox News and the churches want people to think things are worse than ever because fearful people are easier to control. But there is so much more doom and gloom hanging in the air than that.

    Where does it come from? I would really like to hear your ideas.

    You really want to hear my ideas? Fine.

    Just for starters, I’m disabled. That means I can’t work. Because I can’t work, I have to live with my parents because disability benefits are currently nonexistent. For the better part of 2016, disability benefits and treatment have been held out in front of me, always ostensibly just one application or phone call away, but every step I take reveals another that has to be completed first.

    Have disability benefits ever existed in this country? No. Almost certainly not. However, they do exist in most first-world countries. If I lived in, say, Norway I would almost certainly qualify for benefits and I would definitely get treatment, but unfortunately I live in America where both major political parties agree (with a few individual exceptions) that I should essentially be left to die. You can argue that my example is merely one of stagnation rather than regression but I don’t care. First, it’s a valid reason for pessimism. Second, it’s only natural to expect a gradual progress of social improvement and enlightenment; merely remaining in place as the tide of progress passes us by is itself a form of ruination.

    Meanwhile, among the friends and relatives relatively close to my age who are not disabled, I’m seeing a lack of economic prospects. My closest friend – such as it is – has a college degree and works in a bookstore for scarcely more than minimum wage while living with three roommates (a college-educated barista, an underpaid adjunct professor, and a new one I’ve never met). And she considers herself lucky because she’s the privileged child of rich parents who paid her entire tuition— she knows people in the same condition who also have six-figure student loans they can’t pay back.

    And while we struggle to survive and fight for what few decent jobs there are, we are constantly bombarded with figures like yours— the 1% are richer than ever! Economic activity is up; stocks are up; manufacturing is up, and we’ll never see any benefit from that, but hey on average, Americans are richer than ever! Over the last seven years, my typical quarterly stock dividend increased from 55¢ to nearly $1 so just think how rich I would be if I were a 1% rentier who owned a lot of stock!

    We’ve seen what protracted economic malaise can do. We know about Japan’s lost generation and we rightly fear becoming one ourselves.

    And already, we see the effects of global warming. Reversing them seems all but impossible; even mitigating them seems like a long shot. As the world heats up, we’ll see more and more damage which will sap the already stagnant economy.

    But surely these problems can be tackled! Yes, but that requires political action. Political action requires democracy, and democracy is being subverted in unique new ways. Rulings like Citizens United are very recent; the trend of elections requiring millions of dollars is itself relatively recent. You can argue that the direct and official disenfranchisement of women and minorities was a bigger affront to democracy, and that’s true but this current trend is very much a regression in its own right. Sixty years ago, any white male candidate could run for office and appeal to the interests of white voters to win; today, winning requires millions of dollars, which requires rich donors, which requires all candidates to treat voters as inherently subordinate to their rich donors. Meanwhile, the structural changes of the campaigns and rulings like Citizens United are supplemented by less official but no less damaging changes. In the past, a two-party system remained stable because if either party strayed too far from the center, it would lose votes. Today, however, the Republicans have run straight off to fascism while the Democrats have followed them most of the way there creating a stable but undemocratic system in which two hard-right parties collude to prevent any challenges to their rule.

    And all the while, we have to deal with older people of previous generations, who established themselves as comfortably middle-class back when they still could, expressing a never-ending parade of bafflement that we could believe our prospects are poor when on average people are better than ever.

    • alkaloid says

      I couldn’t possibly agree with you more.

      As far as Hillary Clinton is concerned, this is what she had to say about her basket of potentially-manipulables as compared to the ‘basket of deplorables’:

      “Some are new to politics completely. They’re children of the Great Recession. And they are living in their parents’ basement,” she said. “They feel they got their education and the jobs that are available to them are not at all what they envisioned for themselves. And they don’t see much of a future.”

      Clinton added: “If you’re feeling like you’re consigned to, you know, being a barista, or you know, some other job that doesn’t pay a lot, and doesn’t have some other ladder of opportunity attached to it, then the idea that maybe, just maybe, you could be part of a political revolution is pretty appealing.”

      http://www.politico.com/story/2016/09/hillary-clinton-bernie-sanders-supporters-audio-leak-228997

      Even she, privately, to other members of her rich clique, concedes that there kind of sort of might be a problem. She’s just not committed at all to the kind of politics that it would take to actually do anything about it.

      And if seeing this, and not only this but that people will buy her swill en masse, see themselves as hostages to it as compared to the people that her policies (especially around the world) really victimize, and lie about the people who aren’t suckers for it, doesn’t fill you with pessimism as a minimum and well justified rage otherwise, then you’re not paying attention at all.

      • says

        Actually, as I read the rest of the transcript, she then went on to say that she only feels comfortable saying what can realistically and possibly done, not what could or should be done. I don’t think her comments were nearly as elitist as they have been sometimes portrayed.

  4. StevoR says

    The Black Lives Matter protests do not hold a candle to the riots of the mid 60s.

    Jim Wright of the excellent Stonekettle station blog agrees with you strongly here :

    http://www.stonekettle.com/2016/09/greatness-again.html

    1968 was when Apollo 8 circled the Moon with three astronauts (Lovell, Anders, Borman) aboard and Graham Hill won the Formula One drivers championship driving a Lotus-Ford – in a season in which five drivers ( Jim Clark, Mike Spence, Jo Schlesser & Ludovico Scarfiotti) were killed as happened regularly then and when wings were introduced to F1 cars for the first time. Now we have robotic spacecraft orbiting Jupiter and heading out of our solar system having visited every planet including Pluto, rovers on Mars and its incredibly rare for anyone to die in motorsport.

    I don’t remember 1968, it was a few years before my time but I do recall the first Space Shuttle launch and watching Ayrton Senna – later triple world champion and the greatest driver I’ve ever seen – blaze around the Adelaide streets in the black Lotus -Renault that didn’t win (Keke Rosberg not-so-distant ancestor and relative of today’s eponymous Nico won in 1985, that first year) but sure did enrapture.

    The 1960’s I missed but I can read and research and learn about them – and have done so. Pretty big cultural impact that decade.

    So yeah.

    We are better off now in almost every way. Times and eras are certainly different but still..

    Historically, these will be remembered as rather placid times, I think.

    I don’t know. I hope so but a lot may depend on what happens now in the elections in the USA and elsewhere. I think the jury’s still waa-ay out on that one.

    So, I really don’t know where the pessimism is coming from. Yes, Fox News and the churches want people to think things are worse than ever because fearful people are easier to control. But there is so much more doom and gloom hanging in the air than that. Where does it come from? I would really like to hear your ideas.

    Well you’ve said Fox news and I think the Murdoch and Rightwing press *is* a big part of the answer here. Not the whole part but certainly the media as a lot to answer for and there are some big issues and horrific situations in the world that it is easy to feel very overwhelmed and depressed by.

    Global Overheating – “warming” is too misleadingly mild a word – is one huge one as are racial and political unrest, disasters, wars and rumours of wars etc .. and I don’t really know either. Because it has always been thus but maybe now its been shouted by a bullhorn into people’s ears and they’re starting to fall for it maybe?

  5. says

    So, I really don’t know where the pessimism is coming from.

    It’s useful to indoctrinate people to be afraid; it lets authoritarians justify why they “have to” do the things they want to do. It simplifies the discussion: “save more! because you won’t be able to retire!” ” buy F-35s! because the Chinese could attack us!” etc.

  6. says

    I really appreciate all those who commented. I did feel the need to say this though: My personal situation is this, due to bad economic choices (like staying home with my kids) I find myself nearing retirement age holding down several part time jobs. I teach at a local community college where I am paid about $100 per week per class I teach. I am limited to teaching about 10 classes a year. That comes to about $18000 per year. I also substitute in the public schools (I am not eligible for a full teaching license here) for which I am paid about $100 per day. Neither “job” has any benefits, including retirement. I get my health insurance from the exchange (Thank you Obama!) although I can’t really afford the out of pocket costs to actually go see a doctor. I have a bit of retirement money, but not nearly enough.
    I am certainly frustrated by the lack of progress on many of the issues that you all have brought out here.
    But I have to say that I am certainly no worse off then my parents were at this stage of their lives. They had 5 kids, one income and they thought retirement would be a disaster. Fortunately it turned out not so bad. I hope that mine goes half as well.
    I showed this TED talk in the class I taught today: http://www.ted.com/talks/peter_diamandis_abundance_is_our_future
    I agree with this and continue to look forward to the future with optimism.
    Which surprises everyone I know!

  7. Johanobesus says

    “Progress is incremental and the conservatives do knock it back from time to time, but it does go on.”
    Forgive the language, but bull-fucking-shit! Progress is not inevitable or a law of nature. It is a quirk of the past couple of centuries of Western Civilization. Economics is the first freedom. It doesn’t matter if you can legally do about anything you want if you have to work sixty or eighty hours a week with constant fear of being fired because your boss doesn’t like your haircut. That’s why we call it wage slavery.

    Yeah, materially Americans generally are still better off than people in the Third World. But it’s pretty weak consolation to say, “you aren’t living a cardboard box drinking from a shit-filled river, so count your blessings.” I’m worse off than my parents, who are worse off than their parents. Some of that is personal bad choices, but some of is structural. It doesn’t have to be this way.

    Your mentioned your hardships. Imagine you’re twenty-five and having to scramble, maybe work two shifts seven days a week, trying to provide for a couple of kids, one misstep away from homelessness, fearing that it will never get better, knowing that climate change might make it all futile anyway. Do you really have trouble understanding the national malaise?

    Civilizations can fail. For most Americans, life is getting worse. We are in the second gilded age. That’s why Trump has so much success. He’s a nasty, ignorant bigot, but a hell of a lot of people are desperate and scared. That’s what makes him so dangerous.

    • says

      No, I don’t understand the national malaise, that is and was my point. Your description of the struggles of people is exactly the same as my parents and pretty much the parents of everyone I know my age. My parents had five kids. They were both college educated and we never had any excess money. A friend of mine bought her parents their first color TV in 1982, the could not afford it before then. I have heard many stories like that from “middle class” people who came of age in the 60s and 70s.

      Yes, I think we should be grateful that we are not living in cardboard shacks and drinking shit out of rivers. Many people do and it was not long ago that our ancestors were in that situation.

      And I did not mean to imply that progress is some sort of inevitable law, it was just an observation of how things are working. Things tend to get better each generation. On social issues we are light years ahead of where we were in the 1960s. It was really in my life time that Jim Crow laws came to an end. The racial situation is tense right now, but nothing like the early 60s.

      It may be that people are “desperate and scared,” but it is my point that they probably don’t need to be. Things have been much, much worse in the past — even just my past — and most people got by. My grandparents were a bit more economically stable than I am, but lived through horrendous historical times (Great Depression and WWII, Korea, Cold War, Viet Nam). I would not change my circumstance with theirs for a second.

      If I somehow found a time machine and wanted a better life for me and my children, I would set the dial for the future, not the past.

  8. Jake Harban says

    @4 sonofrojblake:

    In single phrase – unmet unrealistic expectations. Or if you want it in a word: entitlement.
    Oh, and Facebook.

    That’s a lot of bullshit right there.

    I’m pretty sure that every generation in history has whined that the following generation was spoiled and entitled so I’ll just give that the eyeroll it deserves.

    The bit about Facebook, though? I read your link ages ago and I’m still baffled by it.

    Do you seriously believe that putting your best face forward is a new thing? I know you elderly folks get a little baffled by the whole computers-and-technology deal, but while Facebook the platform may be very new, the actual social behaviors demonstrated have been around for as long as humans had societies.

    At no point in human history have people not attempted to puff up their successes and hide their problems. I guess Franklin Roosevelt must have been pretty good at Facebook image crafting to run for President without people knowing about his wheelchair.

    If anything, we see less “image crafting” now than in the past; we’re more likely to see an ugly divorce than a “perfect marriage” in which the abuse is kept quiet and we’re more likely to see others talking openly about being disabled rather than fight to hide their disability for fear of discrimination.

  9. Johanobesus says

    This is obnoxious, but do you still deny the rightfulness of the national malaise? You said your grandparents were better off than you at this age. That’s not a great defense of progress. People “got by” during the plagues and the Civil War and the Depression. People in India are “getting by.” Life has not been getting better for for the youngest generations, and this is the result. Millions of Americans know that the American Dream is a lie and they are desperate for some sort of change, even if all they can do is riot and burn down the neighborhood. Desperation historically leads to authoritarianism and nationalism.

    As for social change, it’s nice that I could hypothetically marry a guy I fell in love in, assuming I didn’t get lynched, which is a real possibility with all the hate that has been stirred up, but the wisest words I have ever heard are: “the freedom to starve in the streets is no freedom.” Pardon the repetitiveness, but celebrating my “freedom” while drinking sewer water, drowning in debt, and literally dying for lack of medical treatment is pretty difficult.

    But I guess you’ll be too busy scratching your head in befuddlement over the irrationality of the kids today to respond. Take comfort in knowing that you don’t have too many more decades to experience this mess. You’ve had your life, and now the kids can clean up the mess. That’s what I’ve been hearing my whole life, so I guess I shouldn’t be so bitter. After all, I probably won’t even make it to your age, so it’s not really my problem either.

    • says

      I find it hard to believe that, unless you have made tremendously bad choices or have trendously bad genetics that you will not live as long as I have so far (all of 57 years). My problem with the current climate is not that we should feel that we are making progress. We should make progress, especially on social issues. And I do feel we make progress on social issues, even if that progress goes up and down. For example the push towards renewable energy is probably unstoppable at this point, regardless of what the Koch Brothers think or do. Could we move faster? Yes. Would it be better if we moved faster? Yes there too. But we are moving in the right direction, I think.

      Did my generation miss opportunities to make even more progress? Yes we did, voting for Nixon, Reagan, Bush and now Trump. But I would also argue that the world had it’s problems in the 50s, 60s and 70s, civil rights, smog, rivers on fire, etc. We certainly made progress on those issues. The environment is much better off than in 1970. Race relations are bad now, but much better than they were in 1968. Reproductive rights, sexual equality and LGBT rights a way, way better then they were in 1968.

      Progress continues and I remain optimistic for the future.

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