Saturday, June 14, 2008

Gregg Easterbrook: Here's why we feel so bad

Gregg Easterbrook, writing in yesterday's Wall Street Journal, would have us believe that stressing the negative in national and world affairs has become the new political correctness. He points out that McCain has been hammered for "saying the country is 'better off' than in 2000, and Obama for pointing to reduced world tensions, but both are right. "We've been conditioned to believe...that America is in much worse circumstances than it really is."

There's an element of truth to this claim, but Easterbrook's presentation and conclusions are misleading on several counts. First, he sets up an equivalence between Republican fear-mongering and Democratic gloom-mongering. But the electorate has stopped responding to Republicans' hyping their 'War on Terror' -- and Democrats, in stressing the problems in our economy, are responding to voter perceptions, not driving them. Second, he pits current conditions, which he argues are pretty good, against collective perceptions that the country's been heading in the wrong direction -- without examining the grounds for such perceptions. Third, his portrait of current reality is skewed toward the positive. Finally, while allowing that "a long, bloody and costly war being fought for no clear purpose depresses the national mood," Easterbrook in effect suggests that in assessing national health we should discount this little cancer and focus on other vital signs -- without any examination of how the war has affected America's place in the world, its self-perception or its political culture.

First, the presentation of facts. Easterbrook would have us believe that Hillary Clinton was hoodwinking Pennsylvanians a few weeks ago:
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.
Bulletin: the 1990s happened after 1990. Are Pennsylvanians better off than in 1999? Where's the evidence for that? Real income by most reports has fallen for most Americans since the last recessions. There are probably various ways to slice overall assessments of wealth, but Easterbrook doesn't delve into those arguments. Use of the 'straw year' here is telling.

Asserting that "living standards are the highest they've ever been," Easterbrook is remarkably dismissive of current economic woes --
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.
He then conflates public discourse and public opinion while complaining that "the mood of public discourse is four-alarm panic" -- his evidence being opinion polls in which 81% say the nation is on the "wrong track" and 78% saying the U.S. is worse off than five years ago.

But those poll numbers are not a product of "public discourse." The national mood they reflect is the wisdom of crowds. It doesn't respond to news coverage any more than President Clinton's approval ratings did at the height of the Lewinsky scandal. It reflects a collective perception that the middle class is losing ground and will lose more in the coming economic crunch -- and probably that America has lost standing and power in the world and that its economic clout is shrinking.

On the economic front, Easterbrook doesn't address the largest factors eroding Americans' confidence: a healthcare system in meltdown, that not only leaves one sixth of Americans uninsured but increasingly leaves the rest of us with severely limited or even illusory coverage (see: college students' health 'insurance' with a $30,000 cap); annual college tuition costs that at many schools practically match median household income; a steep across-the-board drop in home equity that will probably last ten years, coupled with a prevalence of adjustable mortgages and ever-rising property taxes; constant downward pressure on wages; and the rapid disappearance of defined-benefit pensions outside of the public sector. Factor in a rapid slowdown that may already be recession, and a widespread perception that tight credit, a weak dollar, rising inflation, and a once-in-two-generations housing bust may have permanently altered our economic position, and Americans have more than enough bad news to digest.

On the international front, it may well be true that proportionately fewer people are dying in wars than at any prior time in human history. It's also true that wealth is rising rapidly in much of the developing world, and that bodes well for humanity. On balance I'm an 'end of history' believer myself - that is, I think that sheer competitive pressure will eventually lead most or all countries to liberal democracy -- if nuclear war or environmental disaster don't derail us first. Long-term, I don't think that capitalist police states will be able to compete.

But Americans' gloom and fear with regard to foreign policy is a product of the U.S.'s relative position in the world and our ability to shape events. And the broad national perception is that our reputation has been stained, our leverage eroded, our military overstretched, the limits of our power laid bare, and our own values and civil liberties severely compromised. The failure to stamp out al Qaeda doubtless looms large in people's minds, as does the surge in anti-American sentiment worldwide and in the Muslim world in particular.

No one (as far as I know) has polled Americans' level of faith in the country's long-term ability to address its current woes. But the overwhelming vote that the country is currently headed in the wrong direction is anything but irrational.

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