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Americans’ Ambivalence about the Economy: Beyond Rose’s Rosy Scenario

Opinion pieces and speeches by EPI staff and associates.


Americans’ ambivalence about the economy

Beyond Rose’s rosy scenario

By Lawrence MishelDavid Kusnet, and Ruy Teixeira

In “Is Everyone Down on the Economy?” (Huffington Post, June 19, 2007), Stephen Rose writes that our book, Talking Past Each Other, “articulate(s) the typical left position” that most Americans are mostly pessimistic about the economy.”

In fact, our book seeks to explain the same paradox that Rose addresses in his brief article: Asked about their own individual and family situations, most people say they are succeeding. But, when asked almost any other question — how the economy is performing for “people like me,” for the entire nation, or for the next generation as a whole — people tend to offer much more negative evaluations. Similarly, Americans are pessimistic about trends in incomes, prices, health insurance, pension plans and other factors shaping their living standards and their children’s futures.

Why then do people hold these seemingly conflicting views about the economy? We returned to the reasons Americans offer for why they think they themselves are doing well — not because of positive trends in the economy but rather because of their own hard work and personal sacrifices in the face of great obstacles. Expressing pessimism about their own conditions or their children’s chances would amount to admitting that their own efforts have been unsuccessful. But discussing the challenges confronting the nation and their neighbors and co-workers comes much easier because it doesn’t amount to an admission of personal failure or despair. We don’t claim to have come up with this explanation ourselves. The public opinion analyst Stanley Greenberg reached similar conclusions during the corporate downsizings of the mid-1990s.

Does this mean that we “throw out the positive evaluation of … one’s own condition as people making up answers because they don’t want to face reality?” No, it just means that people want to emphasize the positive elements of their own situations — a perfectly reasonable way to motivate themselves and their children — while being comfortable discussing economic problems on the national, rather than personal, levels. And, yes, there is one other reason why people say their own situations are improving: Over time, barring midlife layoffs, most people do earn more money. But, while a 50-year-old auto machinist is doing better than he did 25 years ago, he may not be more secure than a 50-year-old machinist would have been 25 years ago.

As it happens, most of the polling statistics that Rose cites support this analysis. People claim to live better than their parents (and thanks to technological advances, in many ways, almost everyone lives better than their parents, even if many have less disposable income, less secure jobs, and higher debts). Depending how the questions are posed, people claim to be satisfied with their jobs, although, in one survey, 35 percent (a remarkably high figure) say they’re afraid they’ll be laid off within a year. But 70 percent say job security has declined, and, when asked about today’s young people (and not just their own kids), by a 50 percent to 33 percent margin, Americans expect them to be “worse off” in the future than today’s adults. Rose attributes these negative findings to special circumstances, such as “mass media reports about plant closings.” But these survey results may reflect the ambivalence we address in our book — “I’m all right, but I worry about the economy and people in similar situations to my own.”

Far from being leftist boilerplate, our book suggests that liberals as well as conservatives tend to talk past regular people when they talk about the economy. While the Right overlooks most people’s hardships and anxieties, the Left ignores Americans’ optimism and self-reliance and speaks to people as “victims.” We suggest that progressives, among whom we’d include Rose, find new ways to “speak American” and appeal to people’s values while addressing their anxieties. Our advice is that progressives acknowledge, honor and help people’s efforts to get ahead in rough circumstances while also offering policies that change the economic landscape that makes getting ahead so challenging.

Lawrence Mishel is president of the Economic Policy Institute in Washington, D.C. David Kusnet is visiting fellow at the Economic Policy Institute in Washington, D.C. Ruy Teixeira is a Joint Fellow at the Center for American Progress and The Century Foundation in Washington, D.C.


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