The Democratic National Committee recently ran an ad blasting John McCain for saying the country is "better off" than in 2000. Yet, arguably, except as regards the Iraq war, Mr. McCain's statement is true. In turn, Mr. McCain is blasting Barack Obama for suggesting that international tensions are not as bad as they've been made to seem. Yet, arguably, Mr. Obama is right.
Democratic attacks on Mr. McCain and Republican attacks on Mr. Obama both seek to punish impermissibly positive thoughts. At a time when there exists a sense of crisis over the economy, fuel prices and many other issues, this reinforces the odd, two realities of life in the United States today: The way we are, and the way we think we are. The way we are could use some work, but overall, is pretty good. The way we think we are is terrible, horrible, awful. Possibly worse.
The case that things are basically pretty good? Unemployment is 5.5%, low by historical standards; income is rising slightly ahead of inflation; housing prices are down, but the typical house is still worth a third more than in 2000; 94% of Americans do not have threatened mortgages, and of those who do, most will keep their homes.
Inflation was up in 2007, but this stands out because the 16 previous years were close to inflation-free; living standards are the highest they have ever been, including living standards for the middle class and for the poor.
All forms of pollution other than greenhouse gases are in decline; cancer, heart disease and stroke incidence are declining; crime is in a long-term cycle of significant decline; education levels are at all-time highs.
Sure, gas prices are up, the dollar is weak and credit is tight – but these are complaints at the margin of a mainly healthy society.
Yet the mood of public discourse is four-alarm panic. A recent CBS News/New York Times poll showed "Americans' views on the economy and the general state of the country have hit an all-time low," with 81% saying the nation is on the "wrong track" – the worst-ever number for this barometer. Some 78% told pollsters the U.S. is worse off today than five years ago, the highest percentage to say this since the CBS News/New York Times survey began tracking the question in 1986. Watch any news channel, listen to any political debate, read any pundit. The consensus is we're headed to hell in a handbasket.
Campaigning in Pennsylvania in April, Hillary Clinton said "We need to go back to the prosperity of the 1990s," a comment that drew loud, enthusiastic applause. Converted to today's dollars, per-capita income in the Keystone State is 23% higher than in 1990. People may think Pennsylvania was more prosperous in the past, but the state is better off today. The same can be said for most (needless to say, not all) parts of the country and most demographics. Most are, right now, the best-off they have ever been.
Some of the current gloom-and-doom may be explained by the human propensity to romanticize the past. Just what past would we return to, anyway? The 1950s, when there was systemic prejudice against African-Americans, women and gays? The 1960s, when inflation-adjusted per capita income was far lower than today? The 1970s, when high inflation rates wiped out paychecks and high interest rates made home buying difficult? The 1980s, when investors and people with pension funds were rooting for the Dow Jones to break 2000?
Of course a long, bloody and costly war being fought for no clear purpose depresses the national mood – as it should. The rest of the negativity is hard to fathom. Economic growth is slow, but even if a recession has begun, occasional cycles of slow or no growth are the price we pay for the much longer cycles of boom. Since 1992, the percentage of Americans who tell pollsters of the Pew Research Center they "can afford what they want" has risen steadily – from 39% in 1992 to 52% today, the highest ever. So why do we think the economy is failing?
Increasing pessimism from the news media is surely a factor – and the media grow ever-better at giving negative impressions. Now we don't just hear about threats or natural disasters, we see immediate live footage, creating the impression that threats and disasters are everywhere.
Whatever goes wrong in the country or around the world is telecast 24/7, making us think the world is falling to pieces – even when most things are getting better for most people, even in developing nations. If a factory closes, that's news. If a factory opens, that's not a story. You've heard about the factories Ford and General Motors have closed in this decade. Have you heard about the factories Toyota, Honda and other automakers opened in the U.S. in the same period? The jobs there have solid, long-term prospects.
The relentlessly negative impressions of American life presented by the media, including the entertainment media, explain something otherwise puzzling that shows up in psychological data. When asked about the country's economy, schools, health care or community spirit, Americans tell pollsters the situation is dreadful. But when asked about their own jobs, schools, doctors and communities, people tell pollsters the situation is good. Our impressions of ourselves and our neighbors come from personal experience. Our impressions of the nation as a whole come from the media and from political blather, which both exaggerate the negative.
The latter has never been thicker. Democrats insist Republicans are ruining domestic policy, Republicans insist Democrats are ruining foreign policy. Neither claim is true, but both reflect what we've been conditioned to believe: that America is in much worse circumstances than it actually is.