Saturday, August 02, 2008

If You're Not Grateful, You're Not Paying Attention

Most Americans recognize that while gas is expensive and our grocery money doesn't go as far as it did last year, we are still an enormously prosperous and fortunate nation.

In some countries, a depressed economic climate means mass unemployment, political instability and large-scale deprivation. In America this decade, we have reached the point at which even in a down economy, our unemployment rate does not reach 6% (lower than the rates in Canada and the European Union, let alone those in the developing world). Any unwanted unemployment is terrible; but it is worth remembering that this stability especially benefits the economically vulnerable.

Furthermore, no matter what the state of our economy, we can realistically count on uninterrupted provision of critical public services, high business start-up rates, the world's highest levels of charitable giving and volunteering, and countless other benefits that come from living in a successful nation.

We may well be unsatisfied with the current state of affairs. Some Americans are suffering, and cannot be faulted for seeking substantial political change in the coming election. But most of us are reasonable people, and can see the difference between correctable problems within a strong system of democratic capitalism and the kind of catastrophic failure that justifies real outrage.

For the nonoutraged majority, here's what the bumper sticker ought perhaps to say: "If you're not grateful to live in America, you're not paying attention."

~Arthur Brooks in the WSJ


10 Comments:

At 8/02/2008 11:25 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The US has been turned into a Banana Republic. I'm paying attention.

 
At 8/02/2008 11:48 AM, Blogger juandos said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

 
At 8/02/2008 5:30 PM, Blogger the buggy professor said...

Another very useful post, Mark --- with Arthur Brooks comparisons of poll data about "outrage" in American opinion these days as compared with the 1990s a stimulus to reflection . . . something, moreover, I hadn't known.

It's also nice to find how outraged numerous liberal-left groups are about American politics and economic life these days --- not that this comes as surprise to anyone; nice to have it in data-form all the same, no?


.............


That said, it's doubtful whether the scope of "outrage" --- which is to say the percentage of "outrage" experienced by Americans over the last week --- is a good measure of public opinion attitudes towards either politics or economics. Someone might be outraged over gas prices; another outraged over a traffic jam; several others at the bone-headed behavior of their bosses; numerous more over the incredible insensitivity and boorishness of their spouses or children or what have you.

Nor is that all.

Even if some people say they're outraged about politics or economics, the meaning of "outrage" is very vague. Is outrage the same as anger? Or fury? Or murderous rage?


.........



Enter a tendentious thrust, sotto voce, I fear, the Brooks WSJ commentary.

To wit: several public opinion polls that specifically ask Americans about their views of trends in political and economic affairs --- including the impact of globalizing influences on the US economy --- show an overwhelming sense of worry and pessimism.

In effect, over the last several months, the percentage of worry captured in their polls have ranged from 76-82%, and what's are, have been deteriorating. That deterioration, as it happens, is also reflected in the growing negativity about globalizing influences, including immigration.

.

These polls, moreover, ask questions that are far less ambiguous than Brooks' reference to "outrage". They specifically ask clear questions, such as "How well are things going in the country today: very well, fairly well, pretty badly or very badly?" (CNN. Or "All in all, are you satisfied or dissatisfied with the way things are going in this country today?" (Pew Research Center.) Or "All in all, do you think things in the nation are generally headed in the right direction, or do you feel that things are off on the wrong track?"



......


As a further cross-check, these noticeably disappointing sentiments about the direction of the US in the Bush-W era are supported by polls that directly ask people their opinions of the president's performance. Less than 30% now approve of his performance.

Observe closely. Public opinion of that performance has been negative for the last 40 months --- 90% or so of his 2nd administration.


........



On a wider plane, it's true, American opinion about the direction of our country has sea-sawed ever since the end of the Lyndon Johnson presidency in early 1969 . . . with opinion falling in the late 1960s and then in the 1970s in the Nixon era, only to plunge in the Carter period, rebound in the Reagan era, and then fall again in the Bush-Sr presidency. It rose only in the late 1990s, in the last half or so of the long economic boom.

What was going on in those latter years?

Exactly this: they happened to be the only time since the early 1970s when low-wage income-earners saw their wages actually grow noticeably 1996-2000). Since which time, not only have those low-wages fallen again in real terms, but average real wages have stagnated too.

For that matter, the average for all male workers -- skilled or unskilled -- has essentially stagnated since the late 1970s. The recorded rise found by the Census Bureau (following no doubt the Bureau of Economic Research and Bureau of Labor's work) by 2.0% . . . maybe, if you are a lucky worker and have health insurance and other benefits, 14-15%. (Women's wages have actually doubled in real terms since 1979, but the gap with male wages on an average is still about $20,000 vs. $30,000 . . . which gap probably reflects as well, I imagine, more part-time women workers than their male counterparts).



........



Against this background, what seems to be going on here in American opinion?

Well, tersely put, the long-term trend here is a source of concern, and not just a figment of public opinion fickleness --- or so it seems. You see, there has never been a period in American life since 1789 when the real wages of average Americans have essentially stagnated. Remember, that's on an average. Since 1979, the real wages (and income)of skilled workers have risen, falling noticeably for low-skilled and unskilled.

.

But note.

Even in the period between 1840 and 1913 when, over those 7 decades, this country absorbed 40-45 million immigrants (our population about a quarter or a fifth of what is today on an average over those decades), "low-skilled" US labor still rose steadily . . . only less sharply, according to the best studies (Jeffrey Williamson of Harvard, who was the first to construct a PPP index), than they would have if immigration hadn't occurred.

By 1913, for instance, the US real wage for unskilled labor was about 2.5 times higher than in Britain, and about 3 times higher than in Germany, France, or the rest of West Europe. And the same was true even as late as 1939, on the eve of WWII.

For that matter, the gap was still very large across the Atlantic as late as the end of the 1960os.


........




What has happened since then?

Something extraordinary: though, contrary to what most people thinks --- lots of economic-informed scholars too --- the US economy's rate of GDP growth has been higher since 1975 than virtually all of the EU's, higher than Germany's or Japan's (noticeably so), and also higher in the growth rate of multifactor productivity . . . a measure essentially of technological advance and other non-labor, non-capital contributions to productivity.

And yet, in this period since 1975, American AVERAGE real wages --- not just unskilled wages --- have stagnated.

.


The contributing causes are fairly well known, their weighting being the source of controversy: knowledge-based technologies and a radical shift in the economic base that favors skilled labor, globalizing influences, large-scale immigration (mainly low-skilled), and demographic influences: first the influx of women into the job market, then the alarming growth of single-parent mother-headed families in the black and Hispanic populations --- to an extent, at a much lower level, a growth too in the white community. Plus, it seems, despite ups and downs in the stock-market, a lot of gains for financially savvy speculators (or investors if you prefer the term).

........

.

Add in all the problems of rising health costs, rising food prices (in some items), rapidly rising gas and energy prices, and the heavy disappointment with a clumsy, close-minded presidency --- plus an unpopular war in Iraq, poor fought for the first 4 years (and now fortunately effectively fought) --- and what do you have?

In effect, widespread sentiments that the country is "on the wrong track."


.......



What can we conclude from this fast, top-skimming survey?

Well, some of the American people's pessimism is no doubt exaggerated owing to media hype. And some of it has to be explained in social science terms: in essence, people always sense "deprivation" or "unhappiness" in relative and not absolute terms --- relative to the reference group used as a comparison, or the time period (or both), so that declines from the status quo are particularly worrying.

.

Still, the key point remains. Most of these sentiments do not seem manufactured by Lou Dobbs, Paul Krugman, the NY Times, or whatever group of pundits happens to be on camera pontificating about this or that.

More generally, I doubt whether "libertarians" --- let alone other hard-core Republicans --- are going to be very happy with political trends the next few years in this country.

......


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

 
At 8/03/2008 2:20 AM, Blogger bobble said...

the very thoughtful buggy professor:"Still, the key point remains. Most of these sentiments do not seem manufactured by Lou Dobbs, Paul Krugman, the NY Times, or whatever group of pundits happens to be on camera pontificating about this or that."

wow, excellent post buggy professor.

i would just add that it seems like we have economists and politicians saying "hey, things are great, look at these stats". then, you have the general population saying "i'm not doing so well, and it's getting worse"

we need to take a hard look at those stats. perhaps they have been politically manipulated over the years?

 
At 8/03/2008 5:02 AM, Blogger OBloodyHell said...

> Well, some of the American people's pessimism is no doubt exaggerated owing to media hype.

Unsupported supposition with a basis in your own biases, I believe.

They started with constant lies about the election being "stolen".

The economy has grown steadily for longer under Bush that Clinton, but they've been told all manner of negative lies about it.

They've been fed a constant stream of "hopeless", "awful", "quagmire", and "another Vietnam" descriptions of a war that needs to be fought and has gone intermittently well (well less than 1/4th of the wartime period has the actual situation worsened with time -- less time than WWII after Pearl, both proportionally and in real-time)

So they've been fed a steady diet of "stolen elections", "quagmire", and "recession" for virtually the entire 7+ years of the Bush II presidency.

Further, these are not the people of the past, they are the sheep raised by the Centralized Education System to be unable to read for themselves, or to think for themselves, then fed the above diet.

The idea that the people are going to throw that off is patently ridiculous.

This country is about to go down the tubes, because they are not going to react well when Obama's imbecilic policies take it into the toilet, and they discover what a real recession is, and what happens when other nations really, really don't respect another nation.

If I had kids, I would leave the country for the next five years, probably a lot longer. It's not going to be pretty.

 
At 8/03/2008 7:06 AM, Anonymous bob wright said...

buggy professor:

you mentioned: the heavy disappointment with a clumsy, close-minded presidency

Besides being spectacularly vague, I find "closed minded" generally means not agreeing with the person making the charge.

How has Bush been closed minded? For 7 years he signed everything that crossed his desk. Only this year has he found his veto pen.

Politics is by definition partisan. You cannot have politics without partisanship. Without partisanship, you might as well rename Congress the politburo.

Statesmanship is the craft of managing differences.

I would argue that Bush II has been stubborn, but not closed minded. He has been stubborn on the Iraq war, but not much else.

I suppose that if the founders had all been open minded our currency would still be the pound. After all, how stubbornly closed minded of them was it to insist on the long, drawn-out, fraught with loss, never-ending, 8 year long, "thank God for the French", revolution.

 
At 8/03/2008 7:37 AM, Anonymous bob wright said...

You know, life is a funny thing.

If a politician changes his mind he is accused of flip-flopping.

If a politician doesn't change his mind he is accused of being closed minded.

This is why I watch so much sports.

 
At 8/03/2008 10:47 AM, Anonymous Fred said...

We have outrage because some people think outrage works to their advantage. Developmentally, they are stuck in two year old tantrum mode.

 
At 8/03/2008 10:58 AM, Blogger the buggy professor said...

"This country is about to go down the tubes, because they are not going to react well when Obama's imbecilic policies take it into the toilet, and they discover what a real recession is, and what happens when other nations really, really don't respect another nation." --- Obloodyhell

I always enjoy these exchanges, not to overlook Mark's remarkably informative, data-driven posts.


.....

May I get personal here a second or two? Right now, as an independent voter, I have still torn between voting for McCain or Obama --- both good, decent, intelligent men, either of whom is likely to be in my view a much better president than George W.

Lately, though, I have leaned back from tilting toward McCain in the spring and inching mildly toward Obama --- whom you describe as supporting "imbecilic" policies.

I too was concerned about many of his policies until the last two months or so. In that recent period, you see, he has infuriated his radical supporters by doing what any good Chicago-nurtured politician does: play hardball to get elected, moving toward the center and pursuing independent voters . . . the only way any presidential candidate can get elected.

The more he enrages his once hard-core grass-roots enthusiasts, the more I see in Obama a flexible and pragmatic politician --- not the "imbecile" embracing moon-beamer you apparently do.


......

My greatest concerns related to Obama's views on international affairs --- my speciality as a scholar.

You see, despite my not voting for George W either time, I did support his multilateral intervention in Iraq in 2003, supported heavily by four other democratic countries (Poland, Australia, Britain, and Czech Republic) sending troops into battle, not to mention virtually all of NATO's other members save the French, Germans, and Belgians.

Like many foreign policy specialists, I was then disappointed to see how blithely the occupation was prepared for, and how inflexibly the anti-terror and anti-insurgent campaign was carried out for the next 4 years until the recent surge . . . something I had supported for years (as did, to his great credit, Senator McCain, a man I very much respect.)

But, to be brief here, I have been reassured by the kinds of close advisers around Obama in foreign policy, some of whom I know personally . . . and all of whom I respect.


.......

One final personal comment. Take it for what you want.

A very good friend, whose reliability is unimpeachable, recently had over for dinner a former White House assistant legal counsel in the George W era . . . a Republican lawyer in short, with close ties to the Bush White House.

As it happened, that legal counsel had been on the Harvard Law Review at the same time as Obama . . . the review normally limited, I believe, to the top 20 students in their last year or two at that school.

The legal counsel led a small group of conservative law students, a distinct minority on the review. When it was clear that Obama was going to be elected by the review members, the counsel-student went to talk to him. He said his group would vote for Obama if Obama promised to give them a decent share of the articles to write for the review . . . the president being the decision-maker here.

.

The counsel's judgment of Obama?

He said two things: Obama is a gentleman who honored his commitment to the letter. And Obama, he told my good friend, is the single brightest person he has ever met in his life.


.....

Whether that reassures you is doubtful, what with your fears and alarmist attitude . . . which reminds me of my radical students at UC Santa Barbara who threatened to move to Sweden or Canada if Reagan or George W were elected; and were convinced in the LBJ and Nixon era that a concentration camp for left-wing types had been established in the Santa Barbara era just over the mountains in Condor-land.

There is, of course, always Singapore as a refuge from any imbecilic Obama-driven policies . . . though you'd better make sure that if you move there, you instruct your kids not to tag any signs or cars. If they do, a good 50 lashes to their naked buns will be their punishment if caught.

.......

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

....

PS Oh, by the way, about "close-mindedness," a few words by way of clarification; nothing more.

I should have been clearer. I meant the group-think cadre around Bush-W in the White House --- gate-keepers and all, led by Vice President Cheney --- in regard to our occupational policies in Iraq.

It's never a good idea to go to war as a policy-choice on best-case assumptions. Let us just say that the top person in the State Department in charge of Middle Eastern affairs in the 2001-2005 period --- a former student of mine --- was, along with others, dismayed by the flippant assumptions behind the military occupation and the political ideas regarding it.

There should have been a provisional Iraqi government made up of exiles in place soon after the occupation began . . . accompanied immediately by several thousand combat M.P.s, a good half of them Iraqi exiles too. And it's never a good idea to stick with a rigid military-political counter-insurgency policy for 4 years that was obviously not working.

Otherwise, on my web site, you can find a lengthy analysis published two weeks ago of why the multilateral invasion of Iraq was not only a good thing, but probably inevitable after 9/11.

So some good things about George W, and lots of things I don't like. That, ladies and gentlemen, is what independent thinkers like to do --- not judge each and every facet of public life (whether economic or political) by instinctive deduction from ideological premises.

It seems to be the world is more complex than any ideology can grapple with effectively . . . to put it mildly.

....

PSS Obloody:

The boom of the 1990s lasted 120 months, March 1991 to March 2001 . . . the longest in US history. And no, George W's taking office in late January of 2001 didn't cause it to end. Obviously

The Bush-W boom lasted 72 months --- Oct 1 2001 to Oct 1 2007, since which time the fourth quarter in 2007 saw negative growth, followed by a very weak 1st quarter growth in 2008. That marked the end of the boom.

Let us hope, what with a better 2nd quarter growth rate this year, we stay out of recession.

 
At 8/03/2008 11:49 AM, Blogger juandos said...

Buggy Professor says:

As a further cross-check, these noticeably disappointing sentiments about the direction of the US in the Bush-W era are supported by polls that directly ask people their opinions of the president's performance. Less than 30% now approve of his performance.

Observe closely. Public opinion of that performance has been negative for the last 40 months --- 90% or so of his 2nd administration...

I've noted that what isn't asked about why Bush has such low performance ratings...

Between what passes for news from the MSM and what appears to be a general desire for my fellow citizens to wallow in ignorance, the real reasons for Bush's approval numbers never seem to make it to the surface... There are plenty of reasons for disapproval but what are they?


Buggy Professor says:

And yet, in this period since 1975, American AVERAGE real wages --- not just unskilled wages --- have stagnated...

Hmmm, it couldn't be that the real world conditions caught up with Americans inflated sense of self-worth, right?

Buggy Professor says:

The contributing causes are fairly well known, their weighting being the source of controversy: knowledge-based technologies and a radical shift in the economic base that favors skilled labor, globalizing influences, large-scale immigration (mainly low-skilled), and demographic influences: first the influx of women into the job market, then the alarming growth of single-parent mother-headed families in the black and Hispanic populations --- to an extent, at a much lower level, a growth too in the white community...

Hmmm, I think there is something here that is chronilogically out of step here... Didn't LBJ's Great Society programs (http://www.liberty-page.com/issues/welfare/social/main.html) first start the growth of single parent, mother head of house holds? Didn't the real globalization influences actually start its big time ramp up during the Carter administration with the advent of the first maquilladora plants in Mexico? Didn't federal government intervention (EPA & OSHA as examples) (http://mwhodges.home.att.net/regulation.htm) help push American smoke stack industries to off-shore facilities?

Buggy Professor says:

Add in all the problems of rising health costs, rising food prices (in some items), rapidly rising gas and energy prices, and the heavy disappointment with a clumsy, close-minded presidency --- plus an unpopular war in Iraq, poor fought for the first 4 years (and now fortunately effectively fought) --- and what do you have?

In effect, widespread sentiments that the country is "on the wrong track."

Hmmm, what caused the rapidly rising health care costs? Torts, what part did that play in it?

Rapidly rising gas and energy prices? A serious spike since Nov. of '06 compared to the time pretween Jan. of '01 to Oct. of '06 (http://tonto.eia.doe.gov/dnav/pet/hist/mg_tt_usM.htm)...

"plus an unpopular war in Iraq, poor fought for the first 4 years"... Hmmm, Bush's sad attempt at pandering to the left, maybe?

Buggy Professor says:

And some of it has to be explained in social science terms: in essence, people always sense "deprivation" or "unhappiness" in relative and not absolute terms --- relative to the reference group used as a comparison, or the time period (or both), so that declines from the status quo are particularly worrying...

So if we cut through the clutter here, people are whining needlessly or at the very least whining for all the wrong reasons...

Buggy Professor says:

Still, the key point remains. Most of these sentiments do not seem manufactured by Lou Dobbs, Paul Krugman, the NY Times, or whatever group of pundits happens to be on camera pontificating about this or that.

So what is this crew of clowns then? A mirror of the inordinately clueless American citizen? A citizen who apparently can't or won't think critically about what he or she receives as news and opinion?

Buggy Professor says:

More generally, I doubt whether "libertarians" --- let alone other hard-core Republicans --- are going to be very happy with political trends the next few years in this country.

You, me, and everyone esle will end up mean "means tested" in the coming years if the neo-pinkos get their way...

Buggy Professor says:

May I get personal here a second or two? Right now, as an independent voter, I have still torn between voting for McCain or Obama --- both good, decent, intelligent men, either of whom is likely to be in my view a much better president than George W.

Seriously, you are kidding right?

Obviously someone hasn't been paying attention and in this particular case Professor Gordon it is YOU...

 

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