Americans Have No Idea What’s Going On

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.


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21 thoughts on “Americans Have No Idea What’s Going On

    1. BA Joe hit the nail on the head. Unless a child is fortunate enough to be in a wealthy school district, public school is “abysmally poor”. And the endless nonsense on social media and “streaming” channels with endlessly stupid TV shows, pollutes their computers, cellphones and their developing minds. Few colleges require a rigorous classical liberal arts education emphasizing Western philosophy, Shakespeare, world history including classical Greek and Roman history and its influence on the founding of the American republic, and functional literacy in science. Many adults are emotionally charged up by either far right or far left cable news. I agree with Mr Heisenberg’s assessment of this sad state of Western culture. The Closing of the American Mind by Allan Bloom is worth reading.

  1. If one always spends one time in office, putting in every extra available wake hour, the chance of learning something outside the confined bounds of one’s job is minimal. Conversely, Sweden is oft criticized for “over educating” its populace by right wingers supposedly concerned about gov spending, but frankly the benefits far outweigh the costs in that it helps vaccinating society against very basic stupidity.

    Semi-serious jokes about Americans failing utterly basic geography questions when polled are commonplace here in Sweden, yet the US is highly admired by most Swedes, and oftentimes considered to be an ideal model by many on the right… Luckily first Trump and then Putin have raised the alarm bells.

  2. We humans tend to think we’re mentally powerful and have a great capacity for thought. But nothing could be further from the truth. Humans have little idea what’s happening within the immediate scope of their surroundings, let alone in the broader world. Some of us are a little more aware of certain things, some of us are a little more aware of some other things. But many of us have an entirely limited view of the world and of humanity.

    The world is indeed changing. People are not having children in China, in the US, or in Europe at the same rates they have done so in past decades. China, North America, and Europe are expected to lose a lot of population during this century. And it’s not a bad thing for the planet if it works out that way.

    And let’s not forget immediate concerns. Certain banks continue to have issues in keeping up on debt payments. As the Washington Post put it today, perhaps for the sake of being sensational, a commercial real estate apocalypse is on the horizon. Property values in mid-tier cities like Indianapolis, Atlanta, and Baltimore are suffering because businesses in smaller markets are having greater difficulty in gaining enough income to keep up with the high rents. The Post points out that commercial properties in midsized cities can have as much as a 30% delinquency rate. No thanks.

    CBS noted earlier this month that some banks were downgraded by Moodys. Sure. Things are touchy now. I do not expect the worst case to occur in the US economy. But I cannot help but be anxious to see the new year and what it will bring. I just hope it won’t be too hellacious.

  3. Lazy stupid and blame worthy seems a little harsh when our culture is a component of the disengagement.

    Personally I heard a news narrative about “good news is bad news” and picked at a thread that is still unravelling over two decades later. I have had some intellectual relationships and friendships with smart hard working people who would give their left nut to save this country, in that time frame and they are just genuinely disinterested in the topic.

  4. I genuinely wonder whether there is some bigger plan in play which calls for making the masses stupid and uneducated, on the basis that this makes them easier to manipulate and out of touch with the things that actually matter around them

    1. There most certainly is some of that going on. Many jobs in this country are low paying, mindless and have no chance for advancement. For these an education beyond what should be taught in the 9th grade won’t do.

    2. I do not know if there is a plan, but yes it is a matter of efficiency for the powerful takers. When George H. Bush made the decision after the gulf war to blow up Iraq’s chemical weapons depots he did so despite being warned by leaders of others country’s about the dangers to his own troops. Then he allegedly used his CIA power and prowess to make that a post war non issue and push a narrative that the sick for life troops were suffering mental illness. We now know that it is chronic exposure to sarin gas and not some mysterious mass psychosis. That is the horse shit us stupid lazy Americans are up against. In large part it is the powerful takers who have brought us here. That direct appeasement of Bush’s actions by the republican party and all other people who benefitted from us dumb stupid lazy troops defending the macro economy for the world while wearing an American flag on our shoulders is a framed as “it was best for our country to have a clean victory rather than to admit the mistake”. If we want to talk about who is stupid we need to be talking about the powerful who have shaped our culture into what it is today for their own collective benefit. Hell we would not have had held Bush junior if we had held Bush Senior Rummy & Company for their friendly poisoning. Hell even CNN has abandoned us.

    3. In 1970, Roger Freeman, a Hoover Institution economist and educational adviser to President Nixon then working for the reelection of California Governor Ronald Reagan — defined the target of the conservative attack on tuition free college education in an article that appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle:

      “We are in danger of producing an educated proletariat. That’s dynamite! We have to be selective on who we allow to go through higher education.”

  5. As an older and never married man, my friends often ask me now why I never married this serious girflriend or that serious girlfriend. There are a litany of reasons and explanations, but I’ve settled on just saying that each of those relationships ended when it seemed to me the fights and disagreements transitioned from how or why something disagreeable had happened, to whether they had actually happened and what exactly they were. Once I reached that point, progress in these relationships became elusive if not impossible for me.

    I feel like this is what is happening right now to this country. Facts have long given way to feelings and long-held objective standards have completely gone out the window in a wave of whataboutism and furous counterpunching. This country was founded on the notion that we held certain truths to be self-evident and it is clear to me this cornerstone is eroding and crumbling.

    Besides being single, I am also an inveterate cynic. But if I can be allowed to jump character, I am beginning to wonder if this pervading dysphoria, where no one knows what is happening or what it means, might actually prove to be some sort of unifying rather than dividing force for this country, albeit still possibly in an existential way. I mean it’s hard to fight when you can’t agree on what happened, so maybe this will put an end to the carping and fighting. Then the only question wil be whether we have even have a union anymore.

  6. This is a wonderfully enlightening reminder of just how far we’ve fallen. 35 years ago when my wife and I were teaching strategic management to senior college students, we read a study by a couple of profs from GA Tech who observed students seemed to be out of touch so they created a 30 question multiple choice quiz to check it out. Their questions on par with the poll you cited. So, too, were the results. These folks asked things like what is the US pop, how many members of the house and senate, how big is GNP, the federal budget, etc. They were asked to name five prominent CEOs to which most responded “Hugh Hefner.” In the end, the percentage of correct answers in their study was around 35%. My wife and I edited the quiz a bit to add a couple of critical easy math bits and we started every semester with it for nearly ten years. Our results were essentially the same as the guys got in GA (30-35% correct on ave) . These kids knew nothing about their world and the business world. We finally had to stop using the quiz because there were too many student complaints to the dean that we were picking on them or trying to humiliate them. Nothing has really changed.

    1. That is precisely the wrong takeaway. I sometimes wonder how you come to the conclusions you come to given how intelligent you clearly are. Look around the world. The happiest, smartest nations invest heavily in public education, health care and just generally make a point of using federal money to take care of people. You’re advocating for the opposite of that. The private sector doesn’t do a good job of providing for some (many) types of goods and services. That’s Econ 101 for God’s sake. I’m compelled to suggest (and as usual, I’m going strictly from your long history of public comments on this site) that you harbor seriously flawed views on the merits of meritocracy, if you will. The US is a profoundly socialist country if you’re well-off. When you’re rich in America, the system hands you things (money and advantages that might as well be money) at every possible turn. If you’re poor, the system tries to make sure you stay that way. Sure, some people beat the system, but it shouldn’t be a matter of “beating the odds.” The richest nation in the history of the world should stack the odds in favor of its citizens wherever and whenever possible to be sure that the benefits of hegemony and global dominion accrue to the maximum number of Americans. How is that not obvious? Every day that we don’t implement universal health care, college and so on, is a day that we squander the incalculable benefits of our position in the world.

    2. I support universal healthcare. However, our federal government is doing a terrible job with this. Our country should focus on preventive healthcare- which is not difficult. It basically means cut back on sugar and processed food/carbs and eat more fiber (half of cup of canned beans is about 1/3 of the recommended daily fiber), eat lots of vegetables and eat a moderate amount of protein- eggs are perfect for this. Get a moderate amount of exercise- walking is fine (also reduces stress). No gym membership required. If we really care about our citizens, we would work on reducing obesity and diabetes (primarily caused by eating sugar/processed foods). For those who can handle it- a glass or 2 of wine is likely not going to hurt you if you are eating a healthy diet. Check out the 4 part series on the Blue Zone currently on Netflix. As an added bonus – the cost to eat healthy is definitely less than the cost to eat unhealthy.

      We should have free education thru college for those who want that education. However, we should add online and trade schools because not everyone is willing to work hard enough in college to justify the cost/effort. This is similar to how Europe handles higher education. Our K-12 system isn’t teaching adequate reading, writing, math and critical thinking skills- this needs to be fixed.

      Our country absolutely should have a social safety net for those who truly need it- however, right now there are people collecting disability and also working cash jobs on the side- especially in the elderly/home healthcare industry. In my opinion, this isn’t right.

      All I am saying is that the Federal government has had plenty of time and has plenty of money to get these programs right- yet the execution of these plans is not going well.

      Maybe it is time to try something else. For healthcare and education can we give people credits and let them manage their own decisions? I would have said let each state handle education- but California went from providing a top ranked public education system to one that no longer is doing that.

      The federal government is doing an equally bad job with national defense spending (i.e. multi million dollar ships sitting in Navy yards that haven’t been commissioned because by the time they were built, they were determined to be obsolete). However, for obvious reasons we can’t move that to the states.

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