Unless you have been stranded on a deserted island (without wi-fi!) since last December, you have heard Pharrell Williams’ chart-topping single “Happy.” The catchy, upbeat tune has become a sort of anthem for optimism. The lyrics in the bridge verse proclaim: “Can’t nothing bring me down, my level’s too high.”
On Wednesday of this week, The Wall Street Journal published an article by Patrick O’Connor entitled “Poll Finds Widespread Economic Anxiety,” which summarizes a recent Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll. According to Mr. O’Connor, “Still scarred by a recession that ended five years ago, Americans are registering record levels of anxiety about the opportunities available to younger generations and are pessimistic about the nation’s long-term prospects, directing their blame at elected leaders in Washington.”
The poll found that over three-quarters of those surveyed, an all-time high, are not confident that their children’s generation will be better off than their own. Sixty percent of those surveyed believe that the US is in a state of decline. Nearly three-quarters of the surveyed respondents say that the economic problems facing the country are a result of the failure on the part of elected officials in Washington to get things done. Nearly eight in ten say that they are dissatisfied with the political system. Congress’s approval rating remains at an abysmal 14 percent and the President’s job-approval rating is at a new low of 40 percent, with a disapproval rating of 54 percent.
Although it would seem logical that the prevailing gloom would give Republicans an advantage in the upcoming fall elections, Republicans in Congress were viewed even more negatively than the President and the Democrats in Congress. Only 19 percent of those polled held positive views of congressional Republicans, while 54 percent viewed them negatively. This would seem to indicate that the prospects for change are bleak, regardless of which party prevails in the next elections.
While growth in inflation-adjusted family income has been slow, hiring has picked up and job openings are at a seven year high. Also, despite conflicts in the Ukraine and the Middle East, the Ebola scare in Africa, and other notable world events, the economic markets have been quite resilient. The Dow Jones Industrial Average reached an all-time high in July and, currently, is down less than 1 percent since the start of the year.
So, what accounts for the widespread malaise? Is it a feeling that economic benefits are being enjoyed by relatively few and that income inequality is growing? Or is it a belief that most Americans were doing better five years ago than they are now? According to the pollsters, the American voters are telling their elected representatives that they continue to feel economic distress and that it is their fault.
The frustration with elected officials is palpable. What is far less clear is the seeming disconnect between prevailing American pessimism and certain metrics, like the recent stock-market performance. Negativity seems to breed negativity unless and until the cycle can be broken, perhaps by newly elected leaders who may be perceived as more connected.
I think that I’m going to listen to Pharrell now. And if that doesn’t change my mood, I can always listen to Idina Menzel and “Let it Go.”