American despond

By Felix Salmon
September 10, 2010
This is the most depressing poll you're likely to see this electoral season, and it's not even political. StrategyOne decided that ordinary Americans can't possibly be worse economic forecasters than economists, so they asked whether we're going to have a double dip. 65% said yes, we are. And the rest of the answers are entirely consistent with that: 48% of Americans think that our best days are behind us. 71% think that "America is fundamentally broken and not working". 79% are planning to spend less money at Christmas this year than they did last year:

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This is the most depressing poll you’re likely to see this electoral season, and it’s not even political. StrategyOne decided that ordinary Americans can’t possibly be worse economic forecasters than economists, so they asked whether we’re going to have a double dip. 65 percent said yes, we are. And the rest of the answers are entirely consistent with that: 48 percent of Americans think that our best days are behind us. 71 percent think that “America is fundamentally broken and not working”. 79 percent are planning to spend less money at Christmas this year than they did last year:

“The American public — characteristically optimistic and resilient — is looking around and seeing more and more dark storm clouds approaching on the horizon,” said Bradley Honan, senior vice president of StrategyOne. “Not only has confidence in the economy been severely undermined, there are now real, significant doubts emerging about our country.”

When such dark forecasts are so widely held, of course, they become self-fulfilling. I see only two grounds for hope: either the poll is fundamentally flawed in its design (I have no reason to believe that it is, but it would be great to see someone else trying to replicate these results); or else Americans might actually behave in a relatively high-consuming and optimistic manner, even if they don’t actually think that way when asked.

In any case, it would be nice to see the bulls out there come up with some good explanation of how their forecasts are consistent with these survey results. Because on the strength of these answers, the double dip is coming. And it’s going to be a nasty one, too: 77 percent of Americans think it’s going to be at least as bad as the current recession.


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As someone who’s certainly not in the same camp as the optimists, I do think such polls can be taken too seriously at times.

With no evidence or data and as sheer speculation, I would say that liberals are generally more likely to be pessimistic about the economy than conservatives. Yet with Democrats running both congress and the White House, expressing pessimism is just another way for conservatives to express dissent, resulting in an overinflated count of pessimists.

Posted by bmozaffari | Report as abusive

It’s reminiscent of 1975-1980, in the wake of the Vietnam War failure, Watergate and the resignation of Nixon, the first oil shocks, and the Iranian hostage crisis. We had Carter, who told us to turn down our air conditioning, and then Reagan, who told us it was morning in America. The latter leadership, while short on detail, almost certainly provided the optimism we needed. I don’t see such leadership (in either party) in place or on the horizon in the US today.

Posted by Curmudgeon | Report as abusive

there is a structural limit to growth and we have probably hit it…people can sense it but they dont know why yet…

Posted by rjs0 | Report as abusive

This gloom trade is getting way overdone. Did it ever occur to anyone that these respondents may be repeating what they’ve been told ad nauseum on all the 24 hour news networks, where chaos and disaster is the stock-in-trade? To a degree, Curmudgeon, above, had it right. It’s all about attitude. The current gloominess has nothing on the ‘malaise’ of the late 70′s under Jimmy Carter but, amazingly enough, America recovered and, believe it or not, prospered mightily.

My late father once remarked that Americans tend to go to extremes: things aren’t just good, they’re fabulous OR things aren’t bad, they’re terrible, we’re all gonna die. Present times are no different unless you happen to believe that a) human nature has changed in the past thirty years, and b) it’s different this time. Call me a sceptic, but the gloom trade is really overdone. Time for a correction.

Posted by Gotthardbahn | Report as abusive


Mr. Salmon cites startling statistics. The worst part is that they’re probably valid. While in jest, his recommendation for Tabasco Sauce probably is just what we Americans will get from our politicians . . . both Democrats and Republicans trying to mask the foul taste of the corruption destroying the four cornerstones of American society; government, law, education, and medicine.

In 2006 then 2008, American voters were dissatisfied with the Republicans in power, who had proven themselves hypocritical and feckless, so we threw the bums out in favor of the only other viable option, the Democrats. Now, in 2010, Americans are dissatisfied with the Democrats, who have proven themselves arrogant, socialistic trans-nationalists, so we’re about to throw those bums out in favor of the same Republicans we threw out two years ago. How long will the charade continue? Some say indefinitely because Americans see no alternative to the decay, but there is an alternative. It’s called Science . . . something never tried in American governance.

If the few, truly “classical liberals” among the Republicans and the fewer among the Democrats got together to form a third party based upon the Constitution; American Tradition of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; and Science, we could turn this country around in short order. Surely, there would be pain, but we’d leave America and the world a better place than we found it instead of leaving it in ruin.

It’s less The Who and The What and more The How . . . something that the Republicans, thus far, refuse to address during the current campaign excepting Congressman Ryan, who’s on the right track but the wrong train. It can be done, and we can do it, but will we?

Gene Richard Moss
Author, Inescapable Consequences (fiction/non-fiction; 2009) and
Healthcare Reform D.O.A. (non-fiction; 1994)*

* Nominated for two national awards by the American Risk & Insurance Association.

Posted by Moss_GR | Report as abusive

@Gotthardbahn – Agreed that attitude makes a big difference, and Americans seem to gravitate to extremes. As you note, some of that seems to be driven by the media, which tends to latch on to the big message without paying a lot of attention to the nuances.

I also remember all of the hand-wringing in the late 1980s-early 1990s about how Japan was the ascendant world economic and technological power and the US was in decline, and look how that turned out. We should give it a few decades before we declare the US a has-been.

It concerns me today that we don’t seem to have a leader who cares to make a compelling case for optimism. Could it be that it’s easier to govern from a pessimistic platform? Or is it that leadership in general doesn’t feel positive about our future?

Posted by Curmudgeon | Report as abusive

Optimism? What is there to be optimistic about?

Is 30 years of wage stagnation showing any signs of change?

Are long-term unemployed (especially the over 50 cohort) going to ever see decent paying jobs again?

Is there any sign health care’s spiralling costs are slowing down?

Any signs of the federal government getting serious about its budget and deficits (when defense spending isn’t on the table its not)?

Is there any reason to believe politics as usual isn’t even more entrenched than before?

Any reason at all to believe income inequality won’t continue to increase? Or that whatever jobs that are created won’t be low-paying, minimal benefit positions?

It is pretty obvious to me we will continue down the road of ever-increasing inequality, ever-increasing poverty, and ever-decreasing hope for decent jobs. And neither party shows even the faintest signs of addressing any of these issues.

Posted by realisted | Report as abusive

Here in Philadelphia, the trains are mostly still running on time. So if indeed “America is fundamentally broken and not working,” then someone forgot to tell the geniuses at the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA), who, even in the best of times, can easily lead one to believe that in fact “America is fundamentally broken and not working.”

One would think that, in our current era, a majority opinion of “average Americans” could reliably be chalked into the Contrary Indicator quadrant of the weighting algorithm.

Gosh, I feel better already!

Posted by EricVincent | Report as abusive

” form a third party based upon … Science”

What does this even mean? Newton’s 3 laws have very little to say about government, unless you interpret the first two metaphysically. Likewise, chemistry contributes little more than Le Chatelier’s principle (again, metaphysically).

Do you mean biology? Because eugenics isn’t the popular idea it used to be.

Do you mean Sociology and Pschology? Because both of those are used and abused by both parties currently in power. We don’t need a third one.

Do you mean Climatology? Because it’s a one trick pony and would contribute nothing after meeting some arbitrary carbon quota. In fact, I would never vote for a climatology party, because they would be obsolete if they acheived their goals. Ergo, they wouldn’t ever meet them.

I’m sure you didn’t mean astronomy, geology, oceanography, ecology, meteorology, anatomy, or botany.

As far as I can figure, Mr Moss, proposing a third party based on captial S-cience only serves to make you sound pompous. What possible contribution to government can science make?

Drew Bradley

Posted by drewbie | Report as abusive

Drew, “science” is less a matter of subject than of mindset. A scientific approach can be taken in many endeavors in which you can Observe, Hypothesize, Experiment, Assess, and Conclude. Not sure how this would solve our problems, though, especially given the difficulty of running controlled experiments involving 300 million people.

If Moss has any point at all, he is likely calling for “rationalism” to prevail over partisan politics. Of course, the rationality of a course of action can be a matter of opinion.

Posted by TFF | Report as abusive

The chickens are coming home to roost.

The philosophy of shipping overseas any job that isn’t nailed down has finally worn the optimism of the middle and working classes away. Soaring expenses, sagging incomes, vanished job security: between the rock and these hard places, optimism is destroyed.

No one has any faith in the business elites, but we know that they own the political class, lock stock and barrel.

We have two parties who are exactly the same when it comes to jobs: hands off.

These problems have been building for decades and the problem is the political system cannot address the problems of the voters, without biting the hand that feeds it.

This is a recipe for extremism and instability.

Posted by nyet | Report as abusive