Are the Media Making Us Feel Worse?

Gregg Easterbrook
Gregg Easterbrook Contributing Editor, The Atlantic, Visiting Fellow (2000-08), Brookings Institution, Author, Arrow of History (forthcoming, 2018)

June 16, 2008

Gregg Easterbrook joined Neal Conan of NPR’s Talk of the Nation to discuss the current state of the nation and how Americans should feel more optimistic.

NEAL CONAN, host: Now the Talk of the Nation Opinion Page. Here’s the general mood in the U.S. right now, doom and gloom. Just look at the headlines: a lousy economy, foreclosures, high gas prices. Almost 80 percent of Americans in one poll recently said we’re worse off today than we were five years ago, which is simply not true in most cases, or so says Gregg Easterbrook. In an op-ed on Friday’s Wall Street Journal he argued that life is actually pretty good.

There are two realities in the U.S., he says. When you ask people about their own experiences, their jobs, their schools, they say things are good. Ask about the state of the national economy or schools or health care, most Americans will say the country is on the wrong track. Gregg Easterbrook joins us in a moment.


CONAN: And before the calls start pouring in, you do express one reservation with that argument that people are better off than ever, and that’s the long and bloody war in Iraq.

EASTERBROOK: Sure, no one would argue that everything is fine. There are all kinds of problems in the United States. The Iraq war, prolonged, bloody, costly, no clear purpose. There are good reasons for Americans to be disturbed about the situation in Iraq, and there are very good reasons to worry about the economy. And obviously, even if most people are better off, that doesn’t mean that everyone is. Lots of Americans are having problems. But objectively, America is this year the best off that we have ever been in our history.

If you want to measure it by per capita income converted into real dollars, we’re the best off we’ve ever been. Living standards are the highest that they’ve ever been. Longevity is the highest that’s ever been. Most rates of major diseases are declining. All forms of pollution, except for green house gases, are declining. Crime is in a 20-year cycle of decline. Education levels are at an all-time high. I don’t think there’s any year in America’s history that you would exchange for the year 2008 because we’re living the best that we’ve ever lived right now. But of course, that doesn’t mean that we don’t have problems.

CONAN: And you cite an instance during the recent campaign, I think it was in Pennsylvania, where Senator Clinton said that we have to return to the prosperity of the 1990s. It got a huge round of applause. Nevertheless, you say, in Pennsylvania in the 1990s, things were not good then as they are now.

EASTERBROOK: Per capita. I went back and looked in the 1990 and converting to today’s dollars, of course, per capita income in Pennsylvania was 23 percent lower than it is today, and the unemployment rate was slightly higher than the current Pennsylvania unemployment rate. Of course, in Senator Clinton’s case she’s making a political appeal, her husband was president in the 1990s, but this points to the romanticization of the past that we’re all guilty of, of thinking that our parents had it better than we did or that there were some good old days in the past.

When were the good old days exactly? The 1950s, with systemic discrimination against blacks, women and gays. The 1960s, inflation adjusted income was less than half of what it is today. The 1970s, we had runaway inflation in that period, it was almost impossible for the average person to buy a house. The 1980s, if you had a pension fund you were really hoping that the Dow Jones would break 2000.

So if someone could tell me when the good old days were, maybe I’ll believe in them, but I think the good old days are right now.

CONAN: Gregg Easterbrook is on our Opinion Page today. He’s a fellow at the Brookings Institution. You can read his op-ed “Life is Good, So Why Do We Feel So Bad?” through a link at our blog at And this is Talk of the Nation from NPR News.

And as you look at this argument, nevertheless, why is it do you think that people feel this way if objective reality does not conform to that?

EASTERBROOK: Well, I think partly we’ve been programmed to be complainers. Americans are really good at complaining what – you get good at what you practice, and man do we practice complaining. I think that’s one reason. I partly, Neal, blame the media. The media are ever better at projecting negative images. The technical proficiency, especially of the television media, protecting negative – projecting negative images continues to impress me. I think that anything that goes wrong anywhere in the world, 24/7, we immediately see images of it. There’s no reason why we shouldn’t. We need to know what’s going on around in the world, but because we’re surrounded by images of what’s going wrong, this gives us the impression that everything is going wrong when in fact most things are getting better for most people, even in most developing nations.

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