Debate: Why Are Americans So Down in This Economy?
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- The U.S. economy is growing, unemployment has reached lows not seen in almost two decades, wages are starting to rise and inflation is subdued. Yet lots of Americans say they're not particularly happy or satisfied with their lives. Bloomberg Opinion columnists Conor Sen and Noah Smith met online recently to discuss the state of Americans' personal well-being.
But perhaps paradoxically, Americans don’t report feeling very happy overall. A recent study by Gallup and health-information service Sharecare, with a huge sample size, found large drops across a variety of measures of well-being between 2016 and 2017. People are reporting increased depression, more physical pain and increased worry.
And when we look at behavioral measures -- which economists naturally like to look at -- we see more troubling signs. Suicide data only run through 2016, but it’s at or near all-time highs. Americans are having fewer kids, too. Is it fair to say that the good economy just isn’t making Americans happy?
Conor Sen: This seems like the right time to be having this conversation. A little more than a week after the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported the U.S. unemployment rate had matched a multidecade low, the Centers for Disease Control released data showing a broad-based increase in suicide rates since 1999. Opioid use has skyrocketed this decade and drugs like fentanyl are responsible for a growing number of American deaths.
I’ve got a couple theories for what’s going on. The first is that during the past decade culture has exalted the technology industry, its visionary leaders and disruption as an ethos more generally. But the flip side of disruption is anxiety for those who are being disrupted or left behind.
What’s interesting is it’s not clear in the data how much disruption is actually occurring. One popular theory of the labor market this decade is that technology is leading to more workers leaving traditional employment and being a part of an informal gig economy. But data just released show that if anything, the gig economy may have shrunk since 2005. Another theory is that Amazon and e-commerce are destroying brick-and-mortar retail, but Adam Ozimek of Moody’s recently wrote a piece showing that retail employment has been trending tightly with population growth at the geographic level, suggesting no major change there. For all the talk about ride-sharing and ride-hailing services disrupting automobile ownership, light truck and SUV sales are at record highs. Homeownership is beginning to recover. But even if disruption so far has been more of a psychological phenomenon than one visible in the data, it’s something people feel and it makes them anxious about the future.
The other theory comes from a friend recounting a book passage where a group of kindergartners were watching the Disney move “Dumbo.” All of the kids in the class, even the bullies, were rooting against Dumbo’s tormenters. Everyone in the class related with the persecuted Dumbo.
Ever since the election of President Barack Obama in 2008, America no longer has a demographic majority that can assert itself in all aspects of society. And that’s making everyone anxious, with everyone feeling that their status and rights have become threatened. And we don’t know how long this is likely to last.
NS: Interesting theories! I think you’re absolutely right that technology is not (yet) the threat to our livelihoods that many people worry about. An alternative hypothesis -- supported by some research -- is that social media is making people unhappy. Our cell phones are a seductive temptation, almost like an addictive drug -- and the more time we spend glued to our screens, the less time we have for face-to-face interaction. On top of that, Facebook makes people envious of their friends, Twitter is just constant political fighting, and the ever-present threat of callout culture probably doesn’t help either.
I think your second theory is more worrisome. Stated bluntly, it’s the idea that the disappearance of the white supermajority is sending the U.S. into an ethnic conflict that won’t resolve itself in our lifetimes. There’s good evidence that the threat of losing white demographic supremacy was a big reason people voted for Donald Trump -- and of course, Trump is driving Democratic voters up the wall, so everyone gets to share in the unhappiness. I think that in the long run, very high rates of interracial marriage -- about 40 percent for U.S.-born Hispanics and Asians -- will reduce this feeling of division, and generational change will probably help as well. But what else can we do to allay the threat of ethic division, besides wait for the storm to pass?
CS: I’d say it’s two parts. First, there’s some amount of “waiting for the storm to pass” involved, but the second part is once you see signs of it abating, to step up and take action to stand up for the values you believe in. In the mid-2000s in the aftermath of 9/11 the public was anxious about terrorism, getting on airplanes and white powder being mailed in envelopes. The program “24” was one of the most popular shows on television. But then things changed, which may be why Rudy Giuliani’s 9/11-centric presidential campaign fell flat in 2008. Obama’s more dovish stand on foreign policy carried the day in the 2008 Democratic presidential race over Hillary Clinton’s more hawkish stance. In part I think it was the financial crisis and new issues that were given a sense of urgency. For a time in the early 2010s the non-interventionist/libertarian worldview of Kentucky Senator Rand Paul seemed to be where the Republican Party was going. The fears of terrorism had receded to the back burner.
It’s now been about a decade since the financial crisis, arguably the start of this period of anxiety and xenophobia, so perhaps we’ll start to see these impulses recede. The pain points associated with a tight labor market and labor shortages should increase the urgency for more workers from home and abroad. House Republicans trying to force a vote on immigration reform, even over the objections of President Trump and House leadership, may be a sign that things are changing. And following some number of Democratic seats picked up in this fall's election, the composition of government should be less xenophobic in 2019 than it is today.
NS: I hope you’re right, and that economic good times will slowly make people stop worrying about ethnic conflict. But a pessimist might ask: If people are this upset about demographic change when times are good, what will they be like when the next downturn inevitably comes? I think your hypothesis that some other problem will come along to distract us from ethnic conflict is a better bet. I just hope that “something” isn’t a big war.
In the meantime, what concrete steps can we take to improve American happiness? Basic income is one idea. A few thousand dollars a year would provide poor Americans with a very important cushion, and the universality of it might make people feel a sense of national unity. Taking steps to curb opioid abuse and alcoholism is another obvious one.
What about better urban development? Walkable neighborhoods wouldn’t necessarily get people’s noses out of their smartphones, but they might get them out of their houses.
And is there anything we can do to curb the overuse and abuse of social media?
CS: The latter parts of decades in recent memory have tended to be when we’ve reconciled with the excess of prevailing trends, so perhaps you’re onto something here. Think about oil and inflation in the late 1970s, Japan in the late 1980s, dot coms in the late 1990s, and housing and credit in the late 2000s. Maybe this is a stretch, but perhaps the excess of the 2010s has become outrage, anger and unhealthy uses of technology. My friend Aaron Edelheit just wrote a book addressing the technology piece and advocating that people consider taking a digital Sabbath one day every week from all social media and email. Technology and social media have become so big a part of society that they have to be a part of our problems in some way.
As for new problems on the horizon as replacements for our current ones, I’m hoping it’s something more like labor shortages and supply bottlenecks leading to inflation. That might tilt society to value labor -- and workers more generally -- more than it has in recent decades. It could lead to things like criminal justice reform as a self-interested way to grow the labor force. And we’ve already talked about how it could change attitudes about immigration.
In the spirit of this conversation, I’m going to stick with a pragmatic, hopeful outlook over one filled with anxiety.
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