We can't fill our glass if we're fighting over the last sip

A theory of American discontent

A half-full glass.
(Image credit: Illustrated | iStock)

Here comes another winter of discontent.

First the Delta variant and now the Omicron variant have conspired with persistent vaccine rejection to deny us a satisfying end to the COVID-19 pandemic. Inflation is at a multi-decade high, taking a real bite out of wages, and along with persistent supply chain disruptions it has soured American views of the economy. Crime is up sharply in many places, and overseas wars or rumors of wars in Ukraine and Taiwan feel like stark signs of an American empire in retreat.

But this is a decidedly skewed list. There is plenty of good news to balance it out — even on COVID and particularly on the economy. While the pandemic remains a significant public health challenge, it is nowhere near the crisis it was in 2020, and public behavior reflects this change. Inflation is a bad outcome but a good sign that macroeconomic policy is finally not biased in an overly tight direction. Unemployment is nearly back down to its early 2020 rate, and even reduced growth forecasts due to Omicron are still having one of the highest growth years since the 1990s. This isn't stagflation we're experiencing, but robust demand overshooting supply. Meanwhile, thanks to the CARES Act and the American Rescue Plan, poverty actually fell well before the economy recovered. We can argue whether the glass or more or less than half-full, but it's hardly empty.

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Moreover, there's a strong case it's about to get a lot fuller. In the short term, that's reflected in still-robust economic forecasts and a stock market that bounces back quickly from every setback. But over the next decade, as Noah Smith outlined in a recent Substack post, the prospect for major technological developments that can improve our lives is potentially historic. The extraordinarily effective vaccines that have dramatically reduced the lethality of COVID are only a downpayment on what may be a wave of new biomedical breakthroughs. Renewables have finally become sufficiently cost-competitive that they provided the entirety of the growth in global electric power generation in 2020. The prospect of continued improvements is the best hope yet for tackling climate change — and, beyond that, of delivering a cheap energy bonanza that could fuel a host of other life-transforming innovations.

Nor has public policy been completely on the sidelines in fostering these opportunities. The mRNA vaccines were in part a product of state investment, and the development of a competitive alternative energy market came after years of government subsidy. The bipartisan infrastructure bill, meanwhile, represents the largest public investment in decades, and promises to pay substantial dividends in terms of economic growth and environmental improvement for years to come. We could certainly do more, but we've done more than nothing — and we're starting the reap the benefits.

So why are we increasingly convinced the glass is at least half-empty and draining fast?

It's not just that a clear majority of Americans think the country is on the wrong track. My colleague Damon Linker called attention earlier this week to a recent Pew poll that revealed the true depths of our dissatisfaction. Americans aren't just pessimistic about the economy — though we are. We're pessimistic about our entire system.

In the United States, 42 percent of those surveyed by Pew felt the country's political system needs to be completely overhauled, and an additional 43 percent said it needs major changes. That combined 85 percent who believe profound change in the political system is needed puts us in the top rank of surveyed countries, dramatically more eager for change than counterparts in Canada, the U.K., and Germany, where only 8 to 15 percent favored radical change and 45 percent or more said no more than minor change is needed. And there's little gap between the views of Americans who are optimistic about our economic future and those who are pessimistic: Unsurprisingly, 87 percent of pessimists favor major or radical change — but 82 percent of optimists do too.

Also striking is the disconnect between Americans' perceptions of the economy as a whole vs. our perception of our own economic prospects. In a November poll, 65 percent rated their own financial situation as good — but the same percentage thought the economy overall was in poor shape. Similarly, a growing percentage of Americans thought the economy is likely to worsen, but a growing proportion were confident in their personal ability to get a new job or to pay an unexpected bill.

There's a similar dynamic on the policy front, where Americans broadly approve of the American Rescue Plan, the bipartisan infrastructure bill, and the still-in-progress Build Back Better mix of climate and social spending. But the president himself gets little credit for any of this, with voters of all political dispositions increasingly unhappy with him, convinced he's done little of importance.

What's going on?

In a recent New York Times piece, Cory Robin argues our dissatisfaction — with the Biden administration and with the state of American society generally — reflects the fact that while we broadly believe big structural change is needed, there's no broad-based social movement to make it happen. But Americans are more politically mobilized than we've been in decades, as measured by voter turnout, mass protests, and small-dollar campaign donations. Why hasn't that led to the movement Robin seeks?

Perhaps it's because we're not really mobilized to change the system for the better. We're just here to fight each other. I wonder if that's the core cause of our pessimism?

We know partisan distrust drives our perception of reality itself: There's a growing gap between Democratic and Republican perceptions of economic health that tracks with the political identity of the president more than the state of the economy. Democrats refused to acknowledge the manifest strength of the Trump economy, while Republicans are convinced President Biden, who is in many ways following his predecessor's trajectory, has already destroyed an economy that actually has a lot going for it. Whether things are going well or not, we think they're worse than they are.

That distortion may also be dimming our perception of the future's possibilities and even of our democracy itself. Belief in that future requires belief in our own agency, our ability to take collective action. Since we're increasingly convinced the source of our problems is our fellow citizens, though, such belief is hard to sustain.

Meanwhile, we can't effectively hold the government accountable for its failures and sclerosis — failures which, as the Times' David Leonhardt suggests regarding pandemic policy, may well be a key factor in our discontent. When we see evidence of state ineptitude and incapacity, rather than compete to be the ones chosen to solve the problem, we're more interested in figuring out how to blame the enemy tribe — or how to root out traitors who don't. Is it any surprise, then, that we've soured on a system that can only work co-operatively?

Our problems are real, and we won't solve them by ignoring the degree to which the glass is empty. But neither should we blind ourselves to what we have. However full the glass is now, we have to work together to fill it further instead of fighting each other to take the last sip.

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