Tuesday, February 28, 2017

No need to explain

In the last few months, there have been many attempts to explain why the public is so discontented.  Nicholas Eberstadt says the discontent is a response to real economic problems, while Roger Cohen finds it more mysterious, an example of "the madness of crowds."  But before trying to explain why people are discontented, we should check and see whether they really are.  Eberstadt says "growing majorities hold that America is 'heading in the wrong direction."  A few weeks ago, I had a post about the right direction/wrong track question, and there's no sign of growth--opinions have gone up and down since the 1970s, and at the moment they are pretty much in the middle.  Eberstadt also says "overwhelming majorities of respondents . . . continue to tell pollsters, year after year, that . . . America is still stuck in the middle of a recession."  There have been some questions like that--the latest one in the iPOLL database has 20 percent saying that we are in a recession and 60 percent saying we are not--but they don't go back that far so I looked at a question that was first asked in the 1970s:  "Do you think the economy is getting better, getting worse, or staying about the same?"  That has been asked so frequently that I just included the ones from the 1970s plus one from every year starting in 1980.  I tried to get one from October, otherwise September, August..... (I avoided November or December in case responses are affected by the outcome of elections).  The results, summarized as percent saying better minus percent saying worse:

By historical standards, people are not especially negative today--in fact, they are a bit on the positive side.  The median value is -14, and in October 2016, it was -4.  Even in October 2008, assessments were not nearly as negative as in the late 1970s or the mild recession of 1990.  I think I have an explanation for that, which I will offer in a later post.  But for now, I'll just say that people are not especially discontented about the economy or "things in this country"--the see them as pretty much normal, not especially good and not especially bad.  What they are discontented with is politics, specifically politics in Washington.

[Data from the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research]

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