The Optimism Market

Americans, according to Gallup, are facing a giant deficit in optimism. From CBS.com:

Fewer than four-in-10 Americans (39 percent) rate the US in a positive manner – the most negative feedback the country has produced since 1979.

A new Gallup poll finds that Americans are as negative about the country’s prospects as they have been in more than three decades. Americans are more upbeat in their predictions of where the U.S. will be in five years (48 percent positive), but this is the lowest rating since an August 1979 Gallup poll was conducted.

The deficit is not evenly distributed, by the way:

The negativity about the current state of the US has a politically partisan split – Republicans stated that the country’s best days have already passed and Democrats say the best days have not happened yet. Seventy-five percent of Democrats gave positive reviews of how the nation will be five years from now, but only 15 percent of Republicans were positive – a 60 percent partisan gap.

Which seems right, somehow. But also somehow wrong, too. We’re supposed to be the optimists — we’re the ones who think things get better. They’re the ones who think we’ve pretty much invented everything we’re ever going to invent, that the future is a grim place with dwindling resources and fighting over table scraps.

And that brings me to this, from the Watts Up With That site:

  • In 1865, Stanley Jevons (one of the most recognized 19th century economists) predicted that England would run out of coal by 1900, and that England’s factories would grind to a standstill.

  • In 1885, the US Geological Survey announced that there was “little or no chance” of oil being discovered in California.
  • In 1891, it said the same thing about Kansas and Texas. (See Osterfeld, David.Prosperity Versus Planning : How Government Stifles Economic Growth. New York : Oxford University Press, 1992.)
  • In 1939 the US Department of the Interior said that American oil supplies would last only another 13 years.
  • 1944 federal government review predicted that by now the US would have exhausted its reserves of 21 of 41 commodities it examined. Among them were tin, nickel, zinc, lead and manganese.
  • In 1949 the Secretary of the Interior announced that the end of US oil was in sight.

Isn’t this cheering? Experts are always wrong. Always.  

Maybe that should be our main attack on the policies of this administration and its devotion to magical thinking: mockery.

And optimism.

  1. Giantkiller

    Rob – interesting post.  My first reaction – if Americans are pessimistic, whom do they have to thank?  Maybe they should be more careful when they vote….

  2. Hartmann von Aue

    “Optimism, Captain, Optimism! It’s one of the things that makes your people so charming!”dr-phlox-smile1.jpg

  3. Crow

    The reality deficit is more staggering than the optimism deficit.

    We have polls showing outrageously low approval ratings expressing widespread dislike of Washington, but the American people overwhelmingly re-elected incumbents to office.

    It is this tendency towards completely contradictory thoughts being supported at the same time, followed by rapidly shifting tides supporting the exact opposite, that made the ancients so suspicious of democracy.

  4. Snirtler

    Looking at the economic front–on resources and technology, conservatives still find plenty to be optimistic about. But culture, not so much. That’s going to be a hard slog.

  5. DocJay

    But Rob, after Obama helps the carbon swap multi-trillion dollar investment then  all these storm thingys, like from global weirding and stuff, will all be better.  

  6. Arahant

    We are supposed to be the optimists, but we are also the historically literate.  We can see the parallels.  When Rome was where we are, it was less than a hundred years before Augustus turned the struggling Republic into an empire, even though they kept calling it the Republic.

  7. Barkha Herman

    This reminds me of an anecdote about New York city from the early 1800s.  Apparently, a panel of specialists determined that NY city would not exist in late 1900s, because in order to transport the citizens, it would require so many horses that the entire island would be covered by horse manure…

    People tend to see the future through the tunnel vision of the problems of the day.  Fortunately, things change all the time.

  8. Barkha Herman
    Giantkiller: Rob – interesting post.  My first reaction – if Americans are pessimistic, whom do they have to thank?  Maybe they should be more careful when they vote…. · 27 minutes ago

    Clearly, the issue at hand is who to blame.

  9. drlorentz

    I’m perplexed about why the Left are so optimistic. Actually, they are ambivalent: on the one hand they look forward to a utopian future of awesomeness, on the other hand they despair that we’re running out of resources and overpopulating the planet.

    The optimism gap can be explained by a difference in expectations about the future. Leftists are reactionaries, looking to the past as a model for the future. In their agrarian, free-range, locally-sourced utopia we have simpler lives without all the complications of new technology. We’ll get power from centuries-old technologies. We’ll eat what we can grow. We’ll live in huts with thatched roofs. Of course, we’ll still have iPhones, but it’s not clear what they will be connected to.

    In the conservative future there’s innovation and change. We don’t know what new things will be invented but we’re excited about that. Now there’s some guy in Washington who’s stepping on the hose, as Rob aptly put it. Of course conservatives are in a funk. They are afraid of the same future the liberals celebrate.

    The story doesn’t have to end this way.

  10. Nathaniel Wright

    I wonder why anyone ever buys into the “America in Decline” meme.

    I also wonder how anyone can think things are worse today — morally, socially, etc. — than in the 70s. Has no one seen the footage of the Chicago White Sox “Disco Destruction” double header?

    That event makes it look like the classic film THE WARRIORS is an accurate depiction of live in the 70s, and you know what …it kinda was.

  11. Brian Clendinen

     Were pessimistic about the people in charge not natural resources. Two totally different subjects. Also the pessisim in the pass was how outside forces would destroy America, not America destorying itself. We did it 150 years ago for a decade or two, what to say we won’t do it again.

  12. Jim Chase

    These “optimism” polls always bug me, because they are only meaningful in the most broadest sense.  Generally, the country’s in a bad mood, but moreso those whose preferred political party is out of power.  If you perceive your side to be “winning”, you are optimistic.  If you perceive your side to be losing, you tend to be pessimistic.  If you believe that both sides are worthless, you are deeply pessimistic and cyncial to boot.

    Incumbents get re-elected because by and large, we like our guy (gal).  It’s the other guy’s guy or gal we want voted out of office.  So we end up with what we have now – an oligarchic political class.

    One can be optimistic without checking common sense at the door.  One can be pessimistic without doing the same.  Unfortunately, quite a few seem to have done just that.

    To Rob’s point, mockery may be a tool to poke holes in so-called magical thinking, but mockery alone is not a strategy.  You still have to be able to communicate the counterpoint.  Will conservatives be able to succeed at that communication?

    At least in the near term, I’m not so optimistic.

  13. Plato
    Nathaniel Wright: … Has no one seen the footage of the Chicago White Sox “Disco Destruction” double header?…

    Disco Demolition Night, July 12, 1979, began the rebirth of America. A spontaneous rebellion against the disco cretins, mindless morons in tube tops and platform shoes whose wretched counter-revolution had ushered out the rock era in popular music.

    One year and four days later, with discos closing and the preppy look ascendant, Republicans nominated Ronald Reagan for President.

    Maybe we need a Hip Hop Demolition Night to restore our optimism!

  14. Quinn the Eskimo

    The experts who say that our natural resources are drying up and usually the same ones who say that endless expansions of the power of the State are a good thing.

    So, yes, the experts are always wrong and I suspect they are the one’s optimistic about the state of affairs today.

  15. Southern Pessimist

    Mockery I am good at. Optimism, not so much.

    We will only get out of this mess if a politically correct liberal can usurp conservative values and tap into the gigantic possibilities of utilizing our natural resources and at the same time transform the entitlement mentality into a shared pay as you go expectation.

    Good luck with that.

  16. Keith Preston

    Conservatives are pessimistic because they see the inevitable financial collapse ahead.  Leftists are optimistic because they always avoided hard subjects like math in school and majored in women’s studies and environmental public activism instead.

    We are battening down the hatches for the coming bleepstorm, while they will be caught on the promenade deck celebrating with the Chosen One when the lookout yells (too late) “Iceberg, dead ahead!”

    Problem is, there aren’t enough lifeboats to go around.  We all have to distribute the few existing craft “fairly.”  

    Nearer my God to thee.  

  17. EJHill

    There has to be a pony in there somewhere!

  18. Tom Lindholtz

    I am very optimistic about man’s creativity and his ability to manipulate ideas and materials to solve problems. This is where Malthusians and other doomsayers are wrong. The population of earth is better fed and has cleaner drinking water than ever before and I see no reason to suppose this will not continue apace.

    I am very pessimistic about man’s moral, social, and cultural ability to get along with his fellows. Doing so requires some common set of values to which all submit. But we live in an increasingly self-centered, individualistic world where people do not want to give up any autonomy to do whatever they want whenever they want; every man does what seems right in his own eyes. History shows us that this does not end well. I see nothing on the horizon that is suggestive of hope — though, historically, hopeful changes do not typically send advance men — so pessimism seems the most logical stance.

    So, in sum, I predict the world will grow increasingly wealthy in material terms and increasingly poverty-stricken in measures of social and cultural well-being.

  19. Layla
    Snirtler: Looking at the economic front–on resources and technology, conservatives still find plenty to be optimistic about. But culture, not so much. That’s going to be a hard slog. · 1 hour ago

    YES. That’s the difference, I think, right there. Conservatives are pessimistic not because we fear that we’ll blow through our natural resources or stop innovating, but because our culture is depraved and puerile and worse.

    Leftists, by contrast, work toward cultural collapse–then they get to build a NEW culture! With all-new values! The chief of which is that…there are no transcendent values at all! Huzzah!

    Brings me back to Serenity, of course:

    “Sure as I know anything, I know this: They will try again. Maybe on another world; maybe on this very ground swept clean. A year from now, ten? They’ll swing back to the belief that they can make people… better. And I do not hold to that.”

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