Opinion

The Edgy Optimist

A new American dream for a new American century

Zachary Karabell
Jul 26, 2013 13:22 UTC

In a major speech this week on the economy, President Obama emphasized that while the United States has recovered substantial ground since the crisis of 2008-2009, wide swaths of the middle class still confront a challenging environment. Above all, the past years have eroded the 20th century dream of hard work translating into a better life.

As Obama explained, it used to be that “a growing middle class was the engine of our prosperity. Whether you owned a company, or swept its floors, or worked anywhere in between, this country offered you a basic bargain — a sense that your hard work would be rewarded with fair wages and decent benefits, the chance to buy a home, to save for retirement, and most of all, a chance to hand down a better life for your kids. But over time, that engine began to stall.” What we are left with today is increased inequality, in wages and in opportunity.

The assumption is that this is unequivocally a bad thing. There have been countless stories about the “death of the American dream,” and Detroit’s bankruptcy last week was taken as one more proof. Yet lately the unquestioned assumption of a better future based on hard work has not served America well. If anything, today’s version of that dream has been the source of complacency rather than strength, and its passing may be necessary in order to pave the way for a constructive future.

But you wouldn’t know that from the president’s speech and from continued news stories and academic studies. The inequalities of opportunity were underscored by a recent study that was brought to national attention by the New York Times this week that showed wide variations in income mobility depending on what part of the United States you live in. Those who live in metropolitan areas, as well as those with more higher education and wealthier parents, have significantly more upward mobility than many in rural areas.

The wage stagnation for tens of millions of working Americans over the past decades combined with the financial crisis has been painful and even calamitous for millions. In truth, however, the middle class security that has now disappeared only existed for a very brief period after World War Two, when the United States accounted for half of global industrial output and achieved a level of relative prosperity and growth that was substantially higher than in any other country. Before the Great Depression and World War Two, there was no assumption in the 17th, 18th or 19th centuries that the future would be inherently better for one’s children.

Whose happiness drives the economy?

Zachary Karabell
Nov 29, 2012 13:31 UTC

A strange inversion has happened in the past few months: Consumers have gone from being deeply pessimistic about the future to slightly optimistic at the same time that companies have moved from being slightly positive to increasingly negative. That discrepancy is intriguing, and raises the question: Which view will determine the course of the near future? Will the buoyed spirits of people carry the day, or will corporate glumness pull us down?

The evidence that consumers are perking up comes from the multiple consumer sentiment surveys done each month, especially those conducted by the University of Michigan and the Conference Board. The most recent Conference Board survey released earlier this week showed consumer confidence at its highest level since February 2008, while the University of Michigan index of consumer sentiment had surged nearly 30 percent from a year earlier as of late November. The Michigan survey revealed more optimism about the employment situation than at any point since 1984.

Some of the improvement in sentiment indicated by these surveys is clearly tied to a better housing market, with prices increasing across the country. Some of it can probably be explained by just how pessimistic people have been over the past few years. These reports cannot compare how people felt in 1984 with how they feel now. The scores are based on purely subjective questions about how people feel (“Do you think that a year from now you will be better off financially, worse off, or just about the same?”). The change in scores is reflected month by month, but the surveys say nothing about the quality of those feelings over time.

Yes, I am thankful this Thanksgiving

Zachary Karabell
Nov 22, 2012 01:22 UTC

It’s admittedly trite to use the occasion of Thanksgiving to look on the bright side, but given how rarely we cast an optimistic outlook these days, it’s as good a reason as any. With Chapter LXXII of the Middle East conflict playing out in Gaza and the daily soap opera of Washington politics oscillating between sex scandals and fiscal fearmongering, we are once again subsuming the bigger picture to the smaller one and privileging fear.

So, in no particular order, here are six economic points to be thankful for, or at least mindful of, this Thanksgiving:

U.S. housing is on the mend. It took four years, but the long swoon in housing has come to an end. Every housing market metric – new sales, new permits, existing home sales, housing starts and prices – has shown steady and consistent improvement over the past few months. Perhaps the most favorable trend:  The inventories of new and existing homes have fallen sharply and is about half what it was at the housing bubble’s peak in 2007. Of course, there are regional variations, and average prices are far lower than at the peak of the bubble. That is likely to be the case for many years. But a fluid U.S. economy requires a functional housing market that allows people to take new jobs or retire. Housing should not be a pillar of economic growth, as it was in the mid-2000s, but it cannot be an obstacle to growth. The housing market has been a barrier. It no longer is.

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