I read a post a while back which talked about how people with aphasia, a set of medical conditions relating to impairment of speech, are encouraged to chronicle their recovery by making annual video recordings. Because recovery is often so slow, it can seem to the patient as if no progress is being made at all. But over the course of a year, the incremental progress is visible and the patient can appreciate how far he or she has come.
It's an interesting idea, even if one is not chronicling the recovery from an illness. We change all the time, but the change is slow. Because we experience ourselves to be the same person, we often don't see the gradual changes in ourselves. Then we look back over some long period and try to remember exactly how things were at that time. This is one of the reasons that I've always found the idea of keeping a diary very interesting, yet somehow I've never been able to keep it up (unless you count this blog, on which you can follow eleven years of my history, after a fashion.)
This struck me recently as I was reading people's reactions to the election. Elections come at intervals: two years for the House of Representatives and many local offices, four years for the Presidency and for many governors, six years for the Senate, and often we're encouraged by politicians themselves to think back over how the last two, four, or even eight years have gone in making our electoral judgments. "Are you better off now?" is a question many a politician asks, in either pointing to his records or attacking his opponent's.
I've read a number of Donald Trump's supporters claim that the US is on the verge of a precipice, and that after eight years of misrule by Obama we desperately need someone strong and decisive to take the country in a radically different direction before we experience an economic and cultural collapse. I'm by no means an Obama fan, but it's very hard for me to understand where this is coming from. Generally speaking, the US is in a significantly better spot than it was eight years ago when Obama took office. Is that because of Obama? Largely no. We had an economic recession kick in during 2008, with housing pricing falling over most of the country, foreclosures, the stock market tumbling, employment peaking at nearly 11%, and several years worth of college students graduating to find it nearly impossible for them to get anything like a decent job. (I graduated during the smaller job crunch of 2001 and yet even so people graduating in 2008 had it significantly worse.) I think that Obama made some bad decisions in trying to deal with the economic situation (the various bailouts and spending bills among them) but nonetheless the economy recovered more or less as it would have under a President McCain, and things are a lot better now.
(This isn't just after-the-fact rationalization, this is pretty much what I predicted in my 2008 after-election post.)
Now, people's perceptions are often shaded by their own personal fortunes, and perhaps mine are overly sanguine because my fortunes over the last eight years have been good. I've changed jobs twice during that time, and I now make around twice what I made eight years ago. (We've also doubled our number of children, though I gather this is not cause and effect.)
However, one element of my job now is also looking at the overall economic conditions that affect our sales, and economic conditions are honestly pretty good now. Overall wage growth has been sluggish, but there's also been virtually no inflation and a lot of consumer goods have got a lot cheaper. Gas is cheap. Unemployment is fairly low. Consumer confidence is high. Indeed, things are good enough that my executives have me working on projects to figure out what we'll do if growth slows down, because historically we don't do this well for very long.
And yet a not-tiny number of people thing that things are so bad that we need to take drastic action if we've ever to "make America great again".
Some of this, of course, has to do with who does well and who does badly at any given time. I'm among those who have done well. I have a job where I sit at a desk all day with a computer, playing with huge databases of data, or else going to meetings to explain to management what it all means. That's a type of worker which, at the moment, is in demand. So perhaps for me this is a golden age of the sort that those who work in factories see the 1960s as having been. (US manufacturing output remains strong, but it's moved south since the glory days of Detroit, and we now employ a lot fewer people to manufacture similar amounts of stuff because modern factories are far more automated.) If artificial intelligence replaces people like me some day, perhaps I'll feel very differently about it all, no matter what the economic indicators say. (Though since I spend a lot of time with this kind of data, I hope I'd have the ability to separate my own experience from the broader reality.)
Another element, perhaps, is the way in which partisanship shapes perception. During most of the Bush presidency there was a significant gap between how Democrats perceived the economy and how Republicans did, with the Democrats believing that the economy was in far worse shape than Republicans did. Once things turned over, this flipped, and Democrats started insisting that recovery was right around the corner while Republicans talked about "the Obama economy".
Perhaps in some sense we all need a trail of little time capsules, reminding us of how we thought things were in the past and what we thought was going to happen next.