Opinion | Things are actually pretty good right now

By Michael Clifford, Staff Columnist

If you rely only on mainstream media to get perspective on economics, it’s understandable to be worried about the current state of affairs — a lot of Americans feel that way. 

Reflecting strong division along partisan lines, a new poll from the Pew Research Center finds that 70% of the public thinks that the economy unfairly favors powerful interests, corporations and wealthy people. It’s not surprising that many people see this influence their own lives, as figures in the media, as well as Democratic politicians, often discuss the rising costs of education, health care and housing to counter claims of a booming economy.

All things considered, the 2020s are starting out as a pretty good time to be alive, economically speaking, for most people in the United States. Some might even say very good. It’s at least good enough that it’s difficult to make a case that people aren’t better off now than they were through most of the last decade.

Bear in mind that while optimism does not justify exaggerated claims of growth by President Donald Trump, even Americans themselves are believers in the economy. Despite an aforementioned general sense of unfairness, the majority of those polled by Gallup last year rated their own financial situation positively, a continuous improvement since the end of the Great Recession. Surveys of consumer confidence have stopped edging higher, but there is no sign of an overall decline yet.

This might paint a slightly less positive picture for growth ahead — which is likely to slow — and it is unlikely that the economy would ever reach consistent 3% growth again without major structural changes, but things are not nearly as bad as some believe it to be. Even rank-and-file employees are finally seeing the benefits of an extended recovery. Multiple government and private studies have found that wages are growing at increasing rates while inflation remains stable and, in recent months, this has been mostly to the benefit of low-wage workers.

With unemployment below 4% — which is usually considered to be full employment, as a certain number of workers shuffle between jobs — nearly two thirds of Americans rate today to be a good time to find a quality job. Particularly, it is still a solid time for recent college graduates to enter the labor force, even though that slice of the market is getting to be more competitive than the rest of the nation.

As far as the most well-cited economic statistics are concerned, things seem to be going pretty well. Still, there are other legitimate worries people have that need to be taken into account. For one, economic growth does not last, and there is always the threat of a recession around the corner. Some economists and commentators believe that extended periods of growth lead to downturns, and the 2010s are the first decade in modern U.S. history to pass without a recession.

Still, recessions are generally relatively short events, and the worst ones suffered — bearing the name “Great” for a reason — have been extremely rare. Since 1945, only three downturns have lasted more than one year, and only three official recessions have occurred in almost 40 years. And, as Simon Moore notes in Forbes, there are several reasons to remain skeptical that a crash will hit this year. Leading indicators — particularly low unemployment, low inflation and a rising stock market — still suggest that markets are confident at this time.

By no means is this an insignificant point. Even while it is becoming popular on the left to dismiss market growth as meaningless for the majority of people, it is clear that workers are seeing the benefits. It is just as unlikely that all of this growth is going to corporate profits. While the share of the economy going to profits is high by historical standards, it peaked back in 2012, and even with a major corporate tax cut delivered back in 2017, has steadied out for several years.

What about the other things we value, outside of the economic sphere? Is the overall quality of life deteriorating, or is it improving? Surveys of this type are limited in what they can tell us, but even when Americans are asked about things other than work and the economy, they almost always consistently feel satisfied in their lives, especially in their families, communities and health.

There simply is not a lot of evidence to suggest that most people in the United States are experiencing economic hardship, and it is a plague to national discourse when doomsday scenarios are invented to avoid justifying radical policy fixes. Much of that alarmism is ideological, but it is unquestionably present on both the left and the right as well, often in the form of populism, which arguably led to the election of President Trump.

Both discontentment and a general anger at elitism are gaining steam among a certain contingent of conservatives. Tucker Carlson, through his show on Fox News, has argued that capitalism, in its current state, only serves elites at the expense of the working class and rural voters — “normal people.” He has further argued that the student debt crisis has drawn young people to socialism.

He may be right about all of this. Yet, while our long-term economic challenges need to be faced and dealt with, tearing down the institutions that make rapid progress possible is not the answer.

Michael writes primarily about politics and economic policy for The Pitt News. Write to Michael at [email protected]Things are actually pretty good right now