America is a paradox.
The US is the richest nation in the history of the world in too many respects to plausibly enumerate. Not only that, the US mints the world’s reserve currency, and because there’s nothing in the world that dollars can’t buy, there’s a very real sense in which the US is infinitely rich. And yet, many American cities have homeless problems, there are pockets of almost Third World-style poverty in the US and America scores embarrassingly low among other rich nations on any number of key metrics associated with societal well-being. America is a fabulously wealthy poor nation.
America is the land of innovation. Google, Apple, Microsoft, Facebook and on and on — all American companies. Students come from all over the world to study at America’s universities. Even if you want to argue that American innovation is in many cases the product of foreign-born minds (or that some of America’s brightest academics actually come from abroad), the fact that those geniuses ended up in the US in the first place says a lot. And yet, America is also the land of abysmal math proficiency, professional wrestling, unfunny bumper stickers and presidents who say things like, “I think we agree, the past is over.” America is a genius nation of morons.
The US is home to the 27-hour work day and the nine-day work week. Prior to the pandemic anyway, you had to drag some Americans out of the office, and in some professions, being unwilling to work yourself to death (literally) is disqualifying. If white collar Europeans knew what their counterparts in America said about the frequency and length of European vacations, white collar Europeans would have fewer American friends. Americans work at the dinner table, we work in Ubers (before that we worked in taxis), we let work ruin marriages, we put work before our children and “workaholic” may as well be in the DSM. And yet, modern America is famously lazy. It’s the land of pervasive obesity and home to millions of intellectual slackers, a majority of whom couldn’t reliably identify countries like France and Japan on an unlabeled map, to say nothing of Ukraine or Syria.
Much as I’d like to believe that America’s better halves will prevail, I’m not optimistic. Indeed, not a day goes by when I don’t run across more evidence in favor of the notion that the US is getting poorer (in terms of providing for those who don’t sit atop the socioeconomic pyramid), more moronic and lazier as time goes on. On Monday, for example, I stumbled across a set of profoundly stupid results from a poll conducted earlier this month by The Economist and YouGov.
In the survey, which polled what I assume was a representative sample of 1,500 American adults from July 29 to August 1, 13% said jobs and the economy were the most important issue for them, second only to inflation (17%).
Given that, you’d expect Americans would be at least vaguely apprised of how things are actually going in the labor market and for the economy more generally. But they aren’t. Not even directionally.
As detailed by YouGov’s Kathy Frankovic, Taylor Orth and Carl Bialik, Americans “are nearly twice as likely to say the economy is shrinking rather than growing,” and more than four in 10 say the economy is in a recession.
That’s not the punchline, though. The comically disheartening takeaway was that 60% of Americans believe unemployment is either a “very serious” or “somewhat serious” national problem. And they’re right. Just not in the way they think. Unemployment is a problem in America — specifically, there’s not enough of it. Or at least not according to orthodox economists, who generally regard a 3.5% jobless rate as unsustainably low and conducive to elevated inflation. (I personally believe there’s no such thing as “too much” employment, particularly when there’s so much suffering in America, but that’s a separate discussion. This is about Americans and data.)
Relatedly, fewer than three in 10 Americans knew the jobless rate fell in July, and just a third said the total number of jobs in the economy is going up.
I realize regular readers don’t need a visual to illustrate how wildly out of touch Americans appear to be, but just in case, the figure above essentially shows that most Americans believe the exact opposite of what’s actually going on in the labor market, which they claim is the second-most important single issue facing the country.
As one editor for a mainstream financial media outlet suggested on Monday, this is in part the media’s fault for playing up bad news and otherwise trafficking in foreboding headlines to generate monetizable web traffic. And yes, there’s obviously a partisan divide.
But, unless you want to argue that these poll results reflect widespread belief among US voters in a conspiracy at the BLS to cook the proverbial books, the common sense explanation is that most Americans are simply too lazy and too stupid to keep themselves apprised of the economic trends which they readily identify as the issues that matter most. They matter so much, apparently, that Americans can’t be bothered to check on them.
The idea that the fate of the republic rests with such people is positively terrifying.