Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Era of Bad Feelings

Good economic numbers and horrible public confidence provide the starkest illustration yet of our national syndrome.

Credit: Gints Ivuskans

The numbers in the paper are unexpectedly good. Tuesday’s inflation report showed that prices have moderated, growing at 3.2 percent (core inflation at 2.8 percent), down from last summer’s peak of 9.1 percent. Fed-watchers think the central bank will not raise interest rates further, which will free up capital for further investment. “The hard part of the inflation fight now looks over,” David Mericle, chief U.S. economist at Goldman Sachs, wrote to clients. In response to this news, the markets soared: The S&P 500 registered a 1.9 percent increase, the Dow Jones Industrial Average a 1.4 percent increase, and NASDAQ a 2.4 percent increase.

These positive developments are not exactly new or surprising. Economic growth has been robust all year, real wages have begun rising, and the job market has been persistently tight. American savings have dwindled, suggesting some degree of confidence in the economic outlook of the near future. In concrete, measurable terms, the country is better off than it has been since the great national madness of 2020–21.


So why is everyone miserable? 

This is not just a talking point; Americans are not happy about something. Despite the figures above, large numbers of Americans have specific complaints about the economy. They complain about inflation and the handling of entitlement programs, and they say the overall condition of the economy is “bad.” Sixty-nine percent say the nation is “on the wrong track.” President Biden’s approval rating floats around 40 percent, while his disapproval rating is well over 50 percent. (The “Bidenomics” moniker for his domestic policy cocktail is especially toxic, given the president’s 34 percent approval on handling economic issues.) It’s no surprise that he is in a race that is too close to call with former President Trump, who, whatever his virtues, also faces some unprecedented challenges as a candidate. What gives?

A devil or two lurk in the economic numbers. While inflation has slowed, prices remain high after a stretch of once-in-a-generation hikes; price decreases are unlikely, and perhaps even undesirable. (Remember the warnings about Japanification?) Job growth has come mostly in low-desirability service sector jobs. On a local level—which is to say, the level on which most people spend most of their conscious thought—many parts of the country are still experiencing the malign effects of deindustrialization. Americans may be forgiven for not being entirely enamored of 2023’s economic outlook. Yet that seems unlikely to be the whole story. Local deindustrialization did not hurt Clinton’s approval ratings enough to cancel out a booming stock market. In fact, the stock market-to-approval correlation held up pretty well until, well, now. 

One thing is the level of economic uncertainty. The Covid lockdowns and the subsequent government-authored inflation explosion have left Americans without their traditional confidence that their political leadership will protect their economic interests before just about anything else. (Compare this to business owners’ uncertainty during the initial rule changes and premium distortions from Obamacare’s rollout.) Things are good now, but there is a weakened sense that the state won’t just pull the economic rug out from under the American people in an arbitrary, unpredictable way (unlike the usual boom-and-bust cycle, which can at least be prepared for and often predicted).

Yet the dysphoria may lie deeper. Affiliation with civil society—churches, charities, clubs—is at an all-time low. So are marriage rates. A plurality of Americans are not associated with any organized religion. Confidence in public institutions is as weak as it has been since the invention of opinion polling: Americans trust small business and the military, and that’s about it. Crime has fallen from its Covid-era high, but remains at far higher levels than those of the pre-Covid era. Compare these numbers to those of the late 1990s.

The picture, then, shows a disjunction between economic robustness and political or civic robustness. The facile equation of national wellbeing with the numbers in the paper going up is becoming untenable; it’s almost as if human flourishing requires more than material prosperity. He who dies with the most toys may win, but there is not a lot of fun in it these days.

The question, as always, is whether the bell can be unrung. In the absence of something like true religion, it’s unclear what there is besides accumulation. (It’s almost as if we had been warned.) Until we figure it out, economic progress—if even tenable in a sustained way with declining social capital—is beside the point.