Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Politics and Perception

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.


BenK said...

Strange for a Roman Catholic to focus on economics alone as an indicator of how the nation is doing.

Darwin said...


Fair point. This was a post on a pretty narrow topic: whether our economy was in such dire straights after eight years of Obama that we needed to support Trump as some sort of emergency measure. In the social media conversations that got me thinking about this over the last couple weeks, it was asserted to me a couple times by other Catholics that while Trump might not be Christian, might be personally immoral, and might have no respect for our moral beliefs, that it was necessary to support him anyway because he was a businessman and only he could fix the economy which was on the brink of destruction.

To which I have to wonder: How in the world did we get to thinking the economy is on the brink of destruction?

I do think that there has been significant moral degeneration in our country over the last eight years, that it has become even more than before a post-Christian country. But it would seem to me a really odd argument that Trump would help with that since, he's pretty clearly not someone who shares our beliefs anyway.

MrsDarwin said...

From Darwin's 2008 post-election post:

"I strongly suspect that Obama has now heard all that he wants to hear out of his pro-life supporters until around August, 2012. If Obama takes any positive act specifically towards reducing abortion (other than coincidental factors like the economy starting to improve in late 2009 -- which is roughly when I would expect a recovery regardless of who won) I will happily eat a hat of your choosing."

He will not find himself obliged to eat any chapeax.

Jenny said...

"Now, people's perceptions are often shaded by their own personal fortunes,..."

Yes. What's the saying? When your neighbor loses his job, it's a recession. When you lose your job, it's a depression.

Since 2008, I have had one significant raise, which was under $10000, but mostly my wages have been frozen. The number of my children has also doubled proving there isn't a cause and effect there. :) Year after year with the same salary, but prices of everything I buy going up. If I had continued working this year, I would have received a 2% raise, the first one since 2012. Woot. But at least I was employed by a long-standing, well-established institution and didn't have a lay-off constantly hanging over my head.

We did take advantage of the absurdly low mortgage rates and put the house on a 15 year mortgage which wasn't a possibility before. But because we chose the 15 year route, which is better in the long term, we didn't see any short term payment relief.

Gas got extremely expensive very quickly and stayed there a long time. I am darkly annoyed that gas is so cheap now because think of how much money I might be saving! But really gas only dropped into the reasonable range about a year ago. That's not exactly years of recovery.

It's true that my 401(k) has done pretty well over the course of these years and overall inflation has been low, but in the immortal words of the guy at the townhall meeting, "I can't eat an iPad."

The inflation on food, conveniently ignored in the calculations, has been staggering. In an example of your snapshot idea to concretely document changes, grocery shopping has been that for us. I was the food shopper before I began working in 2006. My husband took over that function at that point and retained it until just this year. I knew that food prices had soared over this period of time, but I did not really keep up with individual price points.

When I go grocery shopping I still have my 2006 price list bouncing around my brain. I am stunned by how much everything costs now. The only item that is close to the old price is milk. Almost everything else has nearly doubled. I will spend my shopping trips shocked and appalled by the prices until my mind adjusts to the new normal. For example meat. Oh. My. Goodness. The price of meat! Are they kidding? No, they aren't kidding. I used to be able to get lean hamburger for $3 a pound. Not anymore. Now it's $6 or $7 a pound and I get excited when I find it at $5.

So while it's true I have seen economic benefits during the Obama presidency, I won't realize them in my bank account for another twenty years or more. The day to day is still tight without much prospect for improvement if I had stayed in my previous position.

And this is where Trump voters live. Wages frozen at sub-median levels or laid off on unemployment where it doesn't matter that you can get twice the computer for half the price because there's nothing left after food, rent, and utilities. Their mistake (among several) is in thinking a president is going to change this environment.

August said...

When they engage in shenanigans to prop up the stock market and create ridiculous amounts of money, thing can look very good for a particular group of people. Meanwhile, people outside of that stream constantly find their money is worth less and they can't get the bump in salary that ameliorates that because their industry isn't the one money is going to.

We've seen discrimination in the name of diversity. We've seen plenty of environmental (and other governmental) regulation that removes American blue collar jobs overseas. Instead of Maine having logging and jobs you can raise a family on, it has heroin, thanks to the bumper crop our military helped raise in Afghanistan.

It isn't just economic, it is justice. This stuff is unjust.

Finally, how long before whatever surplus we have is used up? How much production will be left in a system where production isn't rewarded? It is somewhat odd to watch Japan, which probably a few years ahead of us in retard central banker behavior- they want to use negative interest rates, yet, at the same time they don't seem to understand why people are not having children. Can nobody make the connection? People had a lot of children when gold was money.

Sarah said...

One thing I want to quibble with is the use of unemployment rates as an indicator of success. As I'm sure you know, those don't include people who've given up. It also doesn't include people like me, who have part time work and need more. Since I graduated in 2009 from college, I can tell you it's been a long rough road with little to show for it, not just for me but for most people I know around my age. "The dream" for us would be to pay all our bills (not just the most urgent), have full time work with benefits that's not a short term contract job (pie in the sky), and be able to build some savings. That sounds like economic heaven, even if I were still sharing a two bedroom apartment. I don't mean to sound irate, just wanted to give a glimpse of what it looks like down the food chain. (For what it's worth I loath Trump).

Jenny said...

I agree that the U-3 unemployment rate is not very useful except as a general trend. The fact that it ignores those who have been totally left behind, and yet still vote, obscures what is really going on at the bottom of the food chain. I think a more useful number is the Labor Participation Rate and examining who is making up the unemployed section of that number. In the past, that number was largely made up of the elderly and mothers of young children. Except now something like 70% of mothers work so there are a lot of men who, in the past, would have been working and now are not. I'll bet many of them are voting for Trump.

Darwin said...

Jenny and Sarah,

I certainly agree that the unemployment rate, GDP growth, etc. don't cover everything, or signify that in some way there aren't any problems. Even with unemployment being lower or growth being higher, there are areas, groups and individuals for whom things are very bad. Just as my own last eight years have been far above the mean, for other people they have been far below the mean.

What I would argue, though, is that when the mean changes it usually means something. So while there are clearly problems with our economy, with one of the major pain areas (though I fear possibly an unavoidable one) being the transition to a much smaller manufacturing workforce than we had 30 years ago, I think that in general the unemployment rate going down over the last eight years is a sign of improvement, just as the unemployment rate going up would be a sign of things getting worse.

FWIW, although the workforce participation rate for people 23-55 has been slower to improve, it has flattened and started inching up over the last year and a half.

And the number of people involuntarily working part time has gone down by a third:

Again, I don't think any of this is to Obama's credit. I strongly agree with Jenny that the president has very little ability to influence these things.

Jenny said...

I agree that the numbers mean something, but the question is why do people on the bottom end of the economy believe it is about to crash. I think the answer is that many people have had a very long, Depression-like experience and have only just now begun to see any improvement in their situations at all. They don't trust it. Experiencing seven years--or more--of setbacks makes one hesitant to believe that any positive movement is anything more than a fluke. They have decided the economy is in chaos, even if their personal situation is improving, and it will take more than a handful of months of job growth to change their minds. But I think it is likely we will have another recession (just by the nature of the beast) before the ones at the bottom will have had enough positive reinforcement to believe the economy isn't on the brink of imploding.