The audacity of optimism

By Zachary Karabell
December 23, 2013

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 

14 comments

We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see http://blogs.reuters.com/fulldisclosure/2010/09/27/toward-a-more-thoughtful-conversation-on-stories/

People like bad news. Flip on the History Channel and the like and you’ll see shows about killer tsunamis, meteorites, or long dormant volcanos and people will gather like moths to a lightbulb.

Posted by jambrytay | Report as abusive

We have essentially become a giant society of spoiled brats and narcissists. Most first world people aren’t happy, unless they have something to be unhappy about. I believe it’s because we’ve had it relatively good for so long now, that most people don’t comprehend what true hardship really is. They think a dip in the market in 08 is the end of the world, when in reality… it was nothing compared to past events. If you looked at financial forums in 08, most informed people took it in stride, because they just know it’s part of the game. The general public however, thought people should be hung immediately.

I recall as a kid being dragged to parties, and overhearing adults talk about how the country would “never be the same again”, and everything was supposedly going to hell. 40 years later and people are still saying the same thing. Overall, I really don’t think it has changed all that much. If anything it has gotten better. At least we don’t have thousands of nukes ready to get shot any second.

People will always find something to gripe about. The difference now though, is that… people have access to way more information than they ever did before…. thus, more excuses to gripe. Now days, people are drowning in information, whereas before… they often lived in ignorant bliss. Truth be told, I think many people simply can’t handle this new barrage of reality. Or as Col. Nathan R. Jessup would probably say… They can’t handle the truth!

It probably doesn’t help that most traditional media companies are desperately clawing to survive, and willing to do just about anything to get listeners/viewers. And as it turns out, they apparently have discovered that the more grumpy and full of hate somebody is… the more dedicated fan they are. So most media outlets dish out what their most dedicated fans want… Hate, discontent, and things to obsess over. Whether it’s shows aimed at nutty “preppers” who think the world is going to end, or people who hate conservatives, or people who hate liberals, or people who think 9/11 was an “inside job”… The concept of legitimate ‘news’ really doesn’t exist anymore. Even a channel labeled “History Channel” puts on shows about how aliens are apparently here, and everything that we’ve learned about past history is supposedly a lie. Little kids actually watch this garbage. My friend’s son believes the moon landing was fake, thanks to this crap.

Then you have idiots like Michael Moore making a living with his anti-establishment BS, telling everybody that wealth is evil and the market is evil… even though he himself is wealthy and is probably invested in the market through numerous union pensions. Or Rush, who just spends countless hours rambling on about how Obama is the antichrist.

Virtually everything is spun with some sort of agenda attached, to give one group or another, their daily excuse to act nutty.

Posted by dd606 | Report as abusive

Most people are followers of others, who have told them how to be successful. However, they have simply been educated in conformity and have no real understanding of how things work. Then, when the reality hits these trained followers, their educators point the finger at whoever is considered bad in society and declares them the reason for the followers failures. So, they have their ready made excuse and they proceed in life knowing that they are victims of the bad people. Most religious people, all ideologues (democrats and republicans etc.), and many others, fall into this caste. They are under the influence of others and have no idea that it is what has happened. They will deny it. Unfortunately these followers abound in the US and perpetuate the difficulties with advancement of the country or humans in general, since they are burdened with so much misconception.

Now, if you ask about the economy and whether one should be optimistic, it depends. In the next few years a lot of money will be made as the oil and coal century wains, but what replaces it may not be any more sustainable. The certainty is that infinite growth in both economy and population are impossible. It leads to ultimate distruction (at some point, but who knows when). So, we apparently need economic growth (actual I don’t buy that, but our leaders harangue on that one quite a bit) but at some point that has to fail catastrophically. I am optimistic that humans (some) know what can and should be done, but as I said, most people are simply followers confused by reality. Those that appear to have control only care about more money for themselves and they are part of the education of the followers. Thus I am pessimistic as to whether humans will collectively be bright enough to prevent their ultimate demise, because most people are only followers and the leaders are selfish greedy people (leaders meaning the owners of the government).

Posted by brotherkenny4 | Report as abusive

you write an entire column about the woe generated by the calumny of hate directed your way by online comments and emails as a result of your columns. Yet you know offer any evidence of the purported attacks or the claims they level against you. I note your email is not even available on this site for people to reach you even if they are angered by your columns. there are 3 comments other than my own on this column and they are all in agreement with you. Good for you for being an optimist but writing a column seething about your mistreatment by the public and how you are the only patriot left is not a good use of your time.

Posted by nycneil | Report as abusive

“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.”
We had a lapse in democracy. ACA, for example, was passed when the dems controlled the whole congress, leaving voice of the majority people out. When the administration focused on serving minority’s interests, of course the definition of “positive news” would flip.
Democracy’s strength comes from its ability to self-correct. GOP will gain popularity back and complete the checks and balances. Hope votes don’t overdo it and give GOP too much control – it’ll be equally bad.

Posted by Whatsgoingon | Report as abusive

Who is the “we”, Kimo-Sabe? I have been overjoyed ever since President Obama was elected to show the difference between a brilliant president and a disastrous president. Some people don’t know the difference, but that is how we got into the mess to begin with.

The agreement with Syria to get Russia (no less) to destroy the chemical weapons deserves a second Nobel Peace Prize all by itself (the Republicans would have invaded). And if he can pull it off in Iran, that is even more amazing.

All of this is without any help from the Republicans at all, but they are content to sit in their Red states and burn up with Global Warming, so who am I to tell them differently?

Posted by Jim1648 | Report as abusive

True, there was a failure in democracy. But the failure was on the Republican part; their leadership ACTIVELY refused to cooperate throughout the entire ACA debate and what overtures they made, which were incorporated, were designed to sabotage the act and make it unwieldly and complex.

Why? Because they were scared as hell of President Obama and deliberately set out to screw over his legislative efforts. They’ll say it was because of his popularity, but looking at the distribution of their core crazies, it certainly wasn’t because of that.

So now they’ve brought the country to the brink of another recession or even a depression, and they don’t give a DAMN about the american people, as long as they can claim they’re ‘against’ anything that the President proposes.

Posted by Burns0011 | Report as abusive

I’ve read through the comments and I can see that people thought out some good responses.

I think there are a few problems, mostly behavioral and cultural problems regarding things like internet rage and the state of discourse.

1. There is little/no respect between dissenting ideas and people. Despite the trite and annoying cry of “my opinion counts!” the thing people often forget is that their opinion is one out of billions and therefore inconsequential until rallied around significantly. So, we tirelessly work to make our opinions the dominant order. The American style of discourse has morphed into a violent battle of persuasion complete with its own associated terminology to reflect its war-like nature. Consider orbiting terms in debate and how violent they are (arguments are won and lost, opponents are defeated, attacked, points are indefensible and ideas are crushed). A presidential debate is not entirely unlike a boxing match. After attending my final semester of grad school as a communication major in Amsterdam to get acquainted with the Dutch approach to discourse, I really understood how pathos-laden and overtly emotional the American style of discourse really is (which is to the detriment of our ability to reason and hence our civility).

2. People don’t study enough History. Anytime there is a hot button issue (cringe) on the American discourse scene it tends to revolve around a tension which can easily be understood and therefore intelligently discussed and worked out through the context of history. Example: Those who !ra-ra! about immigration fail to see that immigration may be the only thing keeping America innovative and relatively ahead in the world (not to mention our very inception as a country was based solely on the flow of unchecked immigration). Example: Those who complain about healthcare probably don’t look at our community of so-called “1st world nations” and how they tend to reflect the idea that a civilized, wealthy nation takes care of its people (a system based on the people contributing to the collective wealth and therefore are granted access to health care in return for their works as citizens). This is a no-brainer for most wealthy European countries and even Canada (which is practically a European country in NA). Why fight about that? Who doesn’t need/deserve healthcare? America is a 3rd world stuck inside a 1st world which probably reflects a lot of the anger and rage thrown at such optimism as the author describes even though its is the king of optimistic thinking and self help literature.

3. People don’t travel enough. To be fair, this is most likely because even though we have a wealthy nation, we apparently have no vacation time to enjoy life. Americans typically work multiple jobs and average 2 weeks of vacation a year (1 paid if you work in hospitality). That’s less than 50% of holiday time that the Germans and French enjoy. Believe me, I’ve lived in Germany and France… you want that holiday time because guess what? What good is a wealthy nation if the people cant actually enjoy themselves a little? All that work was for naught and the drive to be number 1 was apparently only for the sake of empty rewards such as the title of “Number 1″. Travel can ground you and remind you of how amazing and random the world and life really is.. and of course you might receive the all-important epiphanies of “wow, I have it good!” or “why can’t we do it like they do it?” Such experiences help drive more happiness and expectation management. Maybe more importantly, such epiphanies seed the idea that as humans with infinite knowledge and tool sets, we can synthesize everything we’ve done right into something really amazing…

Or is that too optimistic?

Posted by oshinai | Report as abusive

I think you are right that most people who are angry or otherwise distressed by your optimism are white men. Now, depending on your own racial, ethnic and sexual identity, that may seem inconsequential, but it is not.

Unfortunately, the most powerful people in the USA are white men. These people as a whole could not care less about poorer white men. Generally this applies to the bottom 95% of white men. Anger and envy directed toward the powerful and wealthy has systematically been diverted to the entire class “white men” for over half a century, as has discriminatory Federal policy. That general tilt has been highly successful in ending whatever economic future white men had here.

This is not good news for a group that outnumbers all blacks and all Hispanics and all Asians combined, of both sexes. Today the USA has managed to make the future of white male babies born today bleaker than that of any generation since the first quarter of the 20th century. Of course these people are pessimistic! They feel they have no country at all, having been personally blamed for every evil thing done in North America for the past 600 years or so. And, worse, they have been acted against.

The “white male” problem is difficult to solve. While the number of their fellow citizens who would like to see them exterminated is small, the number who feel they should have equal rights is also very small indeed as well as much quieter than those who feel otherwise. Affirmative Action began in 1961, 52 years ago. It became policy when a white man who is 70 today was 18 years old.

Why should the over one third of the population tagged “white men” see anything bright about the future? Developments that look fine in economic numbers apply only to a tiny minority of “white men” while the “engine of change” continues to grind on for the vast majority. And the only voices white men hear cheer their downfall yet dismiss it as “inadequate” and only a “good start”. It is very reasonable to expect the future to continue to get worse, as it clearly will.

Optimism is a matter of perspective informed by social class, race, ethnicity and sex.

Posted by usagadfly | Report as abusive

> The answer, however, is not to focus relentlessly
> on what isn’t working.
Sorry to be contrary but this ain’t Kansas any more. Your view of the world is strangely hollywood, strangely mainstream pablum media. The America that you talk about used to exist, but doesn’t anymore. We now live in a surveillance state. Now the head of the NSA can perjure himself under oath in congressional testimony and there are NO consequences. The war machine knows who you are , who you email and where you sleep. Obama the great joke upon dreamers everywhere is number 1 cheerleader for unconstitutional criminality.
Neither your job nor my job are protected by a country that puts it’s citizens first. We now live in a dog eat dog, profit at all cost, lie to everyone to get what you want world. Anyone not playing that game will be crushed.

Posted by UScitizentoo | Report as abusive

go to a “Big Box” store and find me 6 items made in the USA…then stick your head into the dirt with the other “optimistic” ostriches…

Posted by rikfre | Report as abusive

“The future is open. It is not predetermined and thus cannot be predicted – except by accident. The possibilities that lie in the future are infinite. When I say ‘It is our duty to remain optimists’, this includes not only the openness of the future but also that which all of us contribute to it by everything we do: we are all responsible for what the future holds in store. Thus it is our duty, not to prophesy evil, but, rather, to fight for a better world.” — Karl Popper, The Myth of the Framework

Posted by jemayma | Report as abusive

If there is no concentration on what is “wrong”, then there is no action to fix it. Warnings are ignored – whistle-blowers punished – and it goes on and on, getting worse instead of better.

Posted by AZreb | Report as abusive

Grossly generalizing and ignoring facts while pumping false hope is an interesting approach to your assumption that the “online world of comments and commentary skews towards the negative, especially in the realm of economics and politics.” Let me try that as well, well-to-do talking heads have no quarrel or understanding of an economy that feeds the rich and starves the poor.

Facts that dispel your false hope: The 2012 median wage was at its lowest level since 1998, when the median stood at $26,984.

In 2012, the data show, 67.1 percent of workers earned less than the average, up from 66.6 percent in 2011 and 65.9 percent in 2000. When a rising share of workers makes less than the average wage, it is another sign that wage increases are taking place only high on the income ladder.

Since 2000 the population has grown by more than 11 percent, but the number of people with jobs increased just 3.7 percent. That is, population is growing about three times as fast as jobs are.

Total real wages per American were 6 percent lower in 2012 than in 2007.

David Cay Johnsoton wrote those stats that are ess than optimistic.

That is just one of the multitudes of reasons why optimism is not flourishing in this country. It has nothing to do with online world of comments and everything to do with reality. It’s disjointed optimism and false hope that blind people to reality and make them accept the destruction of the middle class and abandonment of the poor. Rose-colored glasses are not useful in times of economic despair for millions.

Posted by layofflist | Report as abusive