The audacity of optimism
Over the past four weeks, we’ve had a run of undeniably good news. A panoply of data has shown that the U.S. economic system appears to be on firm ground. More people have jobs, albeit not necessarily sterling jobs, and the pace of overall activity as measured by GDP is at the highest level in two years, expanding at 4.1 percent annually. On the political front, Congress passed a budget for the first time in more than three years, which suggests a period ahead where Washington tantrums do not threaten to upend whatever delicate equilibrium currently exists.
And yet, an aura of unease still seems to hover over us. In the year or more that I have written this column, I have often emphasized the way in which things may be going at least a bit right. That contrasts with the frequently repeated mantra that we are going dangerously off the rails. Of course, like anyone, I may be right or wrong or somewhere in between. What’s been perplexing about responses to this column, however, isn’t whether the analysis is right or wrong, wise or naïve, but that the very hint of optimism makes a fair number of people extremely angry.
It may be, of course, that my optimism is misplaced. It may be that the United States is actually headed to hell in a proverbial handbasket; that Europe is in a brief lull before its next leg toward dissolution of the Union; that Japan’s easy money spigot unleashed by the new government of Shinzo Abe will end with the same no-exit stagnation of the past 20 years; and the glorious story of emerging economies from Brazil to Mexico to India to China will end not so gloriously. It may also be that whatever appears to be working in the developed world is in truth working only for a small minority — for the wealthy and members of the middle class in privileged urban areas, and for anyone tethered to financial markets and global commerce.
But possibly being wrong doesn’t explain the anger my columns have provoked, in the form of email and online reactions. Weather forecasters and sports experts are routinely wrong about outcomes, and while those missed predictions can trigger some ridicule, they’re not usually a recipe for rage.
True, the online world of comments and commentary skews towards the negative, especially in the realm of economics and politics. People are more likely to express feelings based on disagreement and a sense of outrage than they are to react based on concord. Anger is a hot experience that triggers action; agreement, even strong agreement, tends to be a more passive reaction.
But why does optimism about today’s world generate such strong hostility? Perhaps because it contradicts what many people believe. Positive views on the present are seen as a slap in the face by people who have negative experiences, which, according to some polls, is the majority of Americans. Surveys suggest that more Americans than ever — 66 percent, according to one poll — believe that the country is headed in the wrong direction. Other polls say much the same thing. Two years ago the numbers were even worse. Americans of the past few years are less positive about the future than they have been at any point since the 1970s.
Interestingly, according to these surveys, blacks and Hispanics in the United States are more positive about the future than whites, perhaps reflecting the degree to which white males have seen their fortunes decline on a relative basis over the past decades, while Hispanics especially have seen significant improvement in incomes and education. That said, it is difficult to know the race and gender breakdown of online reactions to my political and economic analysis.
The problem is that in a country of 300 million people, let alone a world of 7 billion, any statement about an economic or societal trend is likely to differ from the actual experience of a great many people. While there may be upsides to the changing mechanisms of our economic system, there are unequivocally winners and losers and many shades between. Any suggestion that the struggles of one group may be juxtaposed against, though not offset by, the flourishing of another group can seem disrespectful and even indifferent to the challenges faced by many people.
The answer, however, is not to focus relentlessly on what isn’t working. Every society must find some balance between addressing real shortcomings and building on real strengths. The United States in particular oscillates between excessive self-congratulation (“the indispensable nation,” “the freest nation on Earth”) and extreme self-criticism. We can be making a transition from a manufacturing economy to an idea economy that sees millions finding a new way, and millions suffering. We can be educating millions brilliantly while failing to educate millions at all. We can see thriving urban centers even as suburban sprawl melts under too much debt and overpriced homes.
Optimism, as the theoretical physicist David Deutsch so brilliantly describes in The Beginnings of Infinity, doesn’t mean surety about good future outcomes. Optimism is simply the certainty that any human progress to date has been a product of our collective ability to understand how things work and to craft solutions. The conviction that the present is a prelude to a bad future negates that collective ability. Yes, we may indeed be at the end of the line, but by angrily dismissing optimistic arguments we are likely to fail more rapidly. Why bother striving for constructive change if you firmly reject the possibility? That leaves only one viable alternative: to envision a path forward. That path may not materialize, but striving to find it is a vital component of creating the future we dream about, and not the one that we fear.
PHOTO: British singer Robbie Williams gives thumbs-up arrives on the red carpet for the Bambi 2013 media awards ceremony in Berlin November 14, 2013. REUTERS/Tobias Schwarz