Wednesday, May 14, 2008

The "Cultural Rut of Pessimism" in the U.S.

What a difference a century makes:

1888: America excites an admiration which must be felt upon the spot to be understood. The hopefulness of her people communicates itself to one who moves among them, and makes him perceive that the graver faults of politics may be far less dangerous there than they would be in Europe. A hundred times in writing this book have I been disheartened by the facts I was stating; a hundred times has the recollection of the abounding strength and vitality of the nation chased away these tremors.

~"The American Commonwealth" by Britain's Lord Bryce


2008: There is something both startling and disturbing about the gloom that has settled over Wall Street and the country in general. In fact, looking back over the past century, it would be a stretch to rank the current problems as especially notable or dramatic. Something else is going on – namely a cultural rut of pessimism that is draining our collective energy, blinding us to possibilities, and eroding our position in the world.

~Who Stole the American Spirit? by Zachary Karabell, WSJ

17 Comments:

At 5/15/2008 7:20 AM, Blogger Marcus said...

The extreme pessimism in this country astounds me. The pessimism itself is rather disheartening.

Yet, where everyone seems to see nothing but doom and gloom, I see opportunity. Entire mountains of it.

What's going on?

Concerning your post, aren't you being a bit selective with the 1888 quote? There was certainly plenty of pessimism then too.

 
At 5/15/2008 10:09 AM, Blogger randian said...

We didn't have an omnipresent, dedicated to doom-and-gloom so long as the President is a Republican, mass media in 1888. I guarantee the media's tone will change drastically if Hillary or Obama is elected.

 
At 5/15/2008 11:06 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yes, the press really lightened up during the end of the Johnson administration and the Carter administration. Stinking liberal media.

 
At 5/15/2008 12:48 PM, Blogger Jack Miller said...

YES, but with the election drawing near we can expect good things to happen. The $600 helicopter checks are raining down. Today, McDonalds gave away free chicken sandwiches with the purchase of a drink and Dunkin Donuts gave away free coffee. On May the 18th Wal-Mart will give away free ice cream. Free food is raining down with free money and the TV airways are filled with advertisements about the clean energy that will be produced by oil companies in the years ahead. Drop the price of oil a little and a good time will be had by all.

The turn in the stock market, the turn in the dollar and finally a turn in the housing market will set the animal spirits loose. Throw in the take over of Basra and Mosul by the Iraqi government, add in an agreement with Iran and all will be well.

Thank you professor for the 100 year contrast of optimism and pessimism, however, please note that emotions swing hard and fast. George Bush set the all time record for presidential popularity in 2001, but his current popularity readings are near all time lows.

 
At 5/15/2008 3:30 PM, Blogger the buggy professor said...

Pessimism?

Happens every time there is a recession near-by, and the US is led by a weak president. Survey data have brought this out clearly for decades in American opinion, with especially the decline in respect for politicians, including Congress and the Presidency, back in the 1960s.

The nadir was in the Carter period. Under Reagan, the country bounced back, and opinion surveys showed a clear upsurge in optimism, even though it never approached the 1950s period.

Same cycle in the early 90s. Germany and Japan supposedly won the cold war, the economy was rotten, employment turnover was at an all time high in public opinion (funnily, economists couldn't find this in the stats), and Bush Sr couldn't have cared less except for the presidential race.

Then it changed in 1996. Until then, the US economy was supposed to still be tanking, Made-in-Japan (like Made-in-China) was on the verge of controlling the US economy, etc etc. By 1999, all that had changed in opinion surveys again --- though still short of the 1950s.

...........

So what's going on?

1)A decline in respect for traditional authority, now documented for decades.

2) Suspicion of politicians and business elites (partly anchored in American populism).

3) Oppositely --- as surveys still show -- people believe that their own personal fortunes are looking bright (end of 2007)

4) Exaggerated groupthink in the media, with its sensationalist coverage . . . almost always of the bad sort.

5) TV in general: what flourishes create a darker image of life than is the case: aliens among us, horror murderers everywhere, superstition (the devil sends his son to fight the aliens!!) etc.

6) Economic upheavals as the US economy struggles, better than others, to move from an industrial to a postindustrial information-based economy, with globalizing tendencies reinforcing the pace of change.


7) And RELATIVE deprivation: an old social science concept, which was made scientifically respectable and well documented in the 1940s.

Namely: as people's lives improves, their standards of judging deprivation are upgraded, and so they resent more and more any setbacks that would have been easily absorbed by previous generations.

8) There are real problems, which (alas) libertarians tend to downplay --- such as people's genuine worries about losing a job without portable medical coverage, and the high price of gasoline (which takes time to adjust to), and growing realistic worries about illegal Hispanic immigration. In Santa Barbara, there are now Hispanic teen-age gangs operating that never existed before, and that have resulted in three killings the last year, along with attacks on others.

In Southern California generally, social services are being strained by illegal immigrants: they now account for 70% of patients at all public clinics and emergency rooms.

But of course the NY Times and Washington Post on the left and libertarians on the right will tell us that it is all either racism or xenophobia or (Obama: guns, cars, and religion) or on libertarian sites and among columnists Americans just don't get how economically beneficial such illegal immigration happens to be. Not to mention poorly educated legal immigrants whose children will end up doing badly in our school systems, creating the basis for a future ethnic-based underclass.



......

There are other factors, but I would urge Mark and others to be skeptical of these global doom-and-gloom things. On my web site, I recently commented at length on the revived folly --- now 50 years old --- of declinist thought about the US.

-- Michael Gordon, http://www.thebuggyprofessor.org

 
At 5/15/2008 3:31 PM, Blogger the buggy professor said...

Pessimism?

Happens every time there is a recession near-by, and the US is led by a weak president. Survey data have brought this out clearly for decades in American opinion, with especially the decline in respect for politicians, including Congress and the Presidency, back in the 1960s.

The nadir was in the Carter period. Under Reagan, the country bounced back, and opinion surveys showed a clear upsurge in optimism, even though it never approached the 1950s period.

Same cycle in the early 90s. Germany and Japan supposedly won the cold war, the economy was rotten, employment turnover was at an all time high in public opinion (funnily, economists couldn't find this in the stats), and Bush Sr couldn't have cared less except for the presidential race.

Then it changed in 1996. Until then, the US economy was supposed to still be tanking, Made-in-Japan (like Made-in-China) was on the verge of controlling the US economy, etc etc. By 1999, all that had changed in opinion surveys again --- though still short of the 1950s.

...........

So what's going on?

1)A decline in respect for traditional authority, now documented for decades.

2) Suspicion of politicians and business elites (partly anchored in American populism).

3) Oppositely --- as surveys still show -- people believe that their own personal fortunes are looking bright (end of 2007)

4) Exaggerated groupthink in the media, with its sensationalist coverage . . . almost always of the bad sort.

5) TV in general: what flourishes create a darker image of life than is the case: aliens among us, horror murderers everywhere, superstition (the devil sends his son to fight the aliens!!) etc.

6) Economic upheavals as the US economy struggles, better than others, to move from an industrial to a postindustrial information-based economy, with globalizing tendencies reinforcing the pace of change.


7) And RELATIVE deprivation: an old social science concept, which was made scientifically respectable and well documented in the 1940s.

Namely: as people's lives improves, their standards of judging deprivation are upgraded, and so they resent more and more any setbacks that would have been easily absorbed by previous generations.

8) There are real problems, which (alas) libertarians tend to downplay --- such as people's genuine worries about losing a job without portable medical coverage, and the high price of gasoline (which takes time to adjust to), and growing realistic worries about illegal Hispanic immigration. In Santa Barbara, there are now Hispanic teen-age gangs operating that never existed before, and that have resulted in three killings the last year, along with attacks on others.

In Southern California generally, social services are being strained by illegal immigrants: they now account for 70% of patients at all public clinics and emergency rooms.

But of course the NY Times and Washington Post on the left and libertarians on the right will tell us that it is all either racism or xenophobia or (Obama: guns, cars, and religion) or on libertarian sites and among columnists Americans just don't get how economically beneficial such illegal immigration happens to be. Not to mention poorly educated legal immigrants whose children will end up doing badly in our school systems, creating the basis for a future ethnic-based underclass.



......

There are other factors, but I would urge Mark and others to be skeptical of these global doom-and-gloom things. On my web site, I recently commented at length on the revived folly --- now 50 years old --- of declinist thought about the US.

-- Michael Gordon, http://www.thebuggyprofessor.org

 
At 5/15/2008 3:32 PM, Blogger the buggy professor said...

Pessimism?

Happens every time there is a recession near-by, and the US is led by a weak president. Survey data have brought this out clearly for decades in American opinion, with especially the decline in respect for politicians, including Congress and the Presidency, back in the 1960s.

The nadir was in the Carter period. Under Reagan, the country bounced back, and opinion surveys showed a clear upsurge in optimism, even though it never approached the 1950s period.

Same cycle in the early 90s. Germany and Japan supposedly won the cold war, the economy was rotten, employment turnover was at an all time high in public opinion (funnily, economists couldn't find this in the stats), and Bush Sr couldn't have cared less except for the presidential race.

Then it changed in 1996. Until then, the US economy was supposed to still be tanking, Made-in-Japan (like Made-in-China) was on the verge of controlling the US economy, etc etc. By 1999, all that had changed in opinion surveys again --- though still short of the 1950s.

...........

So what's going on?

1)A decline in respect for traditional authority, now documented for decades.

2) Suspicion of politicians and business elites (partly anchored in American populism).

3) Oppositely --- as surveys still show -- people believe that their own personal fortunes are looking bright (end of 2007)

4) Exaggerated groupthink in the media, with its sensationalist coverage . . . almost always of the bad sort.

5) TV in general: what flourishes create a darker image of life than is the case: aliens among us, horror murderers everywhere, superstition (the devil sends his son to fight the aliens!!) etc.

6) Economic upheavals as the US economy struggles, better than others, to move from an industrial to a postindustrial information-based economy, with globalizing tendencies reinforcing the pace of change.


7) And RELATIVE deprivation: an old social science concept, which was made scientifically respectable and well documented in the 1940s.

Namely: as people's lives improves, their standards of judging deprivation are upgraded, and so they resent more and more any setbacks that would have been easily absorbed by previous generations.

8) There are real problems, which (alas) libertarians tend to downplay --- such as people's genuine worries about losing a job without portable medical coverage, and the high price of gasoline (which takes time to adjust to), and growing realistic worries about illegal Hispanic immigration. In Santa Barbara, there are now Hispanic teen-age gangs operating that never existed before, and that have resulted in three killings the last year, along with attacks on others.

In Southern California generally, social services are being strained by illegal immigrants: they now account for 70% of patients at all public clinics and emergency rooms.

But of course the NY Times and Washington Post on the left and libertarians on the right will tell us that it is all either racism or xenophobia or (Obama: guns, cars, and religion) or on libertarian sites and among columnists Americans just don't get how economically beneficial such illegal immigration happens to be. Not to mention poorly educated legal immigrants whose children will end up doing badly in our school systems, creating the basis for a future ethnic-based underclass.



......

There are other factors, but I would urge Mark and others to be skeptical of these global doom-and-gloom things. On my web site, I recently commented at length on the revived folly --- now 50 years old --- of declinist thought about the US.

-- Michael Gordon, http://www.thebuggyprofessor.org

 
At 5/15/2008 3:36 PM, Blogger the buggy professor said...

I apologize for the multiple posts of the same comments. Google did not seem to publish the first two of the posts.

My apologies again, Mark

Michael

 
At 5/15/2008 10:50 PM, Blogger t11s said...

Lord Byron wasn't an American citizen, so of course he could see how wonderful the US was, just like the thousands who risk their life to immigrate here every year.

Here is my quote from 1887, showing the same anti-immigrant bias we see today:

"It has been noted with alarm that the lawlessness and violence which have of late attended the land, were ascribable largely to the foreign element, and that the introduction, growth and spread of those pernicious social and political ideas which are known by the names of Socialism and Anarchism, are due entirely to this element."

Full text

This was written about the time my great-grandmother came over from Europe, and from her dangerous and low-skilled foreign body eventually sprang computer scientists, the CFO of the State Department, an economist, an electrical engineer, an oceanographer, a doctor with the CDC, to name a few.

 
At 5/15/2008 11:43 PM, Blogger the buggy professor said...

Just had a chance --- 9:30 PM in Santa Barbara --- to run a google search and verify that at the very moment Lord Byron was writing his tome, the Populist revolt was in full-swing throughout the South and the Mid-West and western plains.

An agrarian based movement at a time the country was rapidly industrializing, farmers were feeling all the negative effects of the agrarian price collapse of the 1870s and 1880s. Much of the protest was aimed at the big bankers, big finance, corporations, and the government .. . all seen in cahoots to strangle the little guy farmer.

The movement also went beyond legitimate economic grievances: it was xenophobic, anti-Semitic (Jews the universal scapegoat whenever anything goes bad --- say, a sour sex life for you), and anti-elitist. Eventually the Populist Party was headed by William Jennings Bryan, a stunning stump-speaker whose Cross-of-Gold speech rallied a near majority of the electorate when Bryan ran against William McKinley in 1896; he lost only by a narrow vote --- 600,000 behind.

.........

Bryan later joined the Wilson administration and was, of course, the main lawyer opposed to evolutionary teachings in the school system in the Scopes trial of the 1920s.

The Populist Party declined sharply after 1896, overtaken by the Democrats --- especially in the South. Its powerful legacy though --- back to Jeffersonian democratic roots --- remains: a suspicion of elites, whether business, financial, bureaucratic, political, or intellectuals --- when they look arrogant or out of touch with average people.

......

Lord Byron, of course, missed all this in his eulogy of American optimism. It was real enough, but hardly encompassed the declining agrarian sectors of small farmers in the late 19th century.

....

Hardly need, do I, to generalize from this to the widepread sentiments in the US today, against the background of both exaggerated and real problems . . . understood in relative deprivation terms.

Libertarians, of course, can't understand any of this, thinking that progress in GDP and per capita income --- maybe with lower taxes to boot --- is the hallmark of a successful economy and with little or no need for governmental action in social policy areas.

--- Michael Gordon, AKA, the buggy professor, http://www.thebuggyprofessor.org

 
At 5/15/2008 11:59 PM, Blogger OBloodyHell said...

> ~Who Stole the American Spirit?

1) Doom-screaming Envirodimbulbs & their pandering media talking heads on the environment, led by geniuses like Paul Ehrlich.

2) Doom-screaming Libtards & their pandering media talking heads on Vietnam and its aftermath (this tide was flowing the other way in the 80s, but we let them back on top again)


3) Doom-screaming anti-business tools who continually paint the economy as horrible and business as evil.


There is a lot of overlap between those three. Since the late 60s they've sold and/or been selling:

a) Environmental doom. The doom itself has to continue changing, because it's all a crock, but that's beside the point. Population, Global Cooling, Waste production, Resource depletion, Global Warming... it doesn't matter what it is, the darkness and pessimism saps the will.

b) Economic doom. Stagflation, the Trade imbalance, the Japanese peril (next up: a reprise in the form of The Chinese peril), the Deficit, The Great Depression part Deux... all of these are either crocks, don't matter, or are just flat out wrong (has it occurred to ANYONE that the reason the Deficit does not seem to matter is that we distinctly and consistently underestimate the true value of our production, esp. when it comes to IP -- and thus the Deficit isn't *really* there? Anyone? Anyone? Bueller?)... Once again: it doesn't matter what it is, the darkness and pessimism saps the will.

c) Military doom. The US Military can't win. They just can't. Only the U.N. (which is well known for its child-rapist military units) will ever be allowed to win. The US military could come up with a new weapon that killed every single terrorist in Iraq except one, and it would be a complete and utter failure in the modern media. China can invade Tibet, destroy its culture utterly -- elimiate its very existence, but of course, the USA is "the greatest evil the world has ever known". No need to get pessimist there, right?


Some people need their butts kicked, and hard. This crap is going to be the doom of the nation.

 
At 5/16/2008 12:10 AM, Blogger OBloodyHell said...

> Yes, the press really lightened up during the end of the Johnson administration and the Carter administration. Stinking liberal media.

Yeah, they sold us on having lost a war despite having defacto won it as of the Tet Offensive... and, sorry, they certainly weren't helping with the rah-rah-rah for the economy that was going on at the time. They were lapping up the Club of Rome and Paul Ehrlich's crap like the cat in the cream, and spewing it back out at the people. "People just have to lower expectations" and "We have to accept that we aren't the great power we once were".

The difference, then, though, was that THEN the economy DID suck and THEN the war DID have some very bad things happening in it (up until Tet, and, thanks to the media coverage, afterwards).

It says a lot when you realize that the terrorist supporters WANT OBAMA TO WIN.

If you cannot grasp the full and complete implications of that, then you are an utter moron.

The best damned thing the GOP could do was to make THAT into very public information.

 
At 5/16/2008 11:15 AM, Blogger Marko said...

Sometimes I joke that maybe it would be good for a democrat to win, since the next day we would start hearing how the economy is doing really well all the sudden, unemployment is low, the market is up, things are great! If anything bad happens (like weak leadership leading to more attacks) they will blame it on the evil republicans, and it will be swept under the rug, just like when Clinton was pres.

Of course, I am just joking though. I prefer when things are going well and everyone thinks they are bad than when things are bad and people think they are going well. Anyone remember the Regan years?? (meaning things were going well but the lib/fascist/idiots kept claiming it was awful, like now).

 
At 5/16/2008 11:22 AM, Blogger David said...

One factor is this: We have whole industries whose "product" is pessimism. Academics, journalists, writers, and think-tank denizens usually find it more profitable to write & talk about threats than about opportunities.

This is related to the smart-talk trap.

 
At 5/16/2008 2:28 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The thing I love about this argument over whether the country is too pessimist is that it is incontrovertible - if you argue against it than you must be part of the problem.

This is equivalent to saying someone is defensive, and when they say they aren't, you label them as defensive.

 
At 5/17/2008 10:23 AM, Blogger K T Cat said...

I would argue that the pessimism comes from a downbeat media. Their negative nature has nothing to do with politics and everything to do with the cost of acquiring information. Bad news is cheaper to get.

 
At 5/19/2008 12:03 AM, Blogger Jack Miller said...

The Boy Scouts and many other groups put out press releases all the time. The cost of acquiring reams of good news is no more than the cost of bad news.

There are a number of factors in the posting of bad news.

1) Powerful investment bankers and their buddies sit on boards and even own the news media. These companies trade for their own accounts and make billions by "going against the public".

2) Powerful investment bankers and their buddies fund the campaigns of politicians on both sides of the isle. The news needs to be pretty bad to insure improvement by the time elections roll around. This game of expectations has been played for ages.

3) Bad news sells. The story of one 12 year old boy who shoots a dozen classmates will sell more papers than 100,000 boys getting their eagle badges.

 

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