Mixture of Hope and Anxiety Defines Americans' Mood Democracy Gives Us the Opportunity to Succeed, or to Fail

Article excerpt

LOOKING to the new year now before us, Americans view their country's prospects with a mixture of hope and anxiety. It's a very old story.

Commentary on the national mood has focused on economic dimensions. It has stressed "economic insecurity," whether located in supposed fears of foreign competition, or immigrants "taking away American jobs," or domestic manufacturers exiting for cheaper labor abroad, or the fruits of a malperforming educational system.

A cottage industry has grown up around the manufacture and sale of the idea of economic decline. This is curious, since the claim is strongly contradicted by data. The United States economy ranks as the world's leader by every primary measure - including productivity and total per person domestic production of goods and services (GDP).

What's more, real (inflation-controlled) per capita GDP is now the highest ever. GDP stood at $5.365 trillion in the third quarter of 1994, in dollars of 1987 purchasing power. In these same dollar values, GDP had been $4.405 trillion eight years earlier. Real per capita national output climbed from $18,300 to $20,600, or 13 percent, between 1986 and 1994.

Democracy is predicated not only on the normative judgment that ordinary people should be trusted in self-governing, but on the empirical conclusion that, given the full free flow of information, they can be trusted to assess and decide soundly. The latter is constantly reaffirmed in US experience.

The argument that the US is losing ground economically lacks foundation - and the public hasn't bought it. During the 1991-92 recession, economic concerns were high, but on the whole the public has given positive marks to those aspects of national economic performance they can personally observe.

In October, when Yankelovich Partners asked people how they felt their family finances were doing, 12 percent said "very well," 70 percent "fairly well," just 14 percent "poorly," and 4 percent "very poorly." While it's impossible to put a precise measure on such things, this own-position-assessment composite corresponds to the aggregate economic data picture pretty well. The latter shows much of the population doing fairly well economically, although a minority far larger than we would like aren't doing well at all.

Looking ahead, most Americans are fairly sanguine. Asked in the same Yankelovich survey what they expect their family's economic situation will be two years hence, only 10 percent of the public - which is, in the large, experiencing the highest standard of living in history - said they thought they would be worse off. …


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