Are we better off now?

Tetsunori Koizumi, Director

“Are we better off now than we were four years ago?” Every four years the American people are presented with this question in deciding who should be elected as President. Since the Republican candidate Ronald Reagan asked this question and went on to win the election over his Democratic opponent, the incumbent President Jimmy Carter, in 1980, it has become an effective tactic on the part of the challenger in his effort to unseat the incumbent President. It comes as no surprise, then, that the Republican challenger Mitt Romney keeps on raising this question at every opportunity, as he sees the records of the incumbent President Obama to be too weak to answer this question in the affirmative.

What is different about this year’s presidential election campaign from past campaigns is that it is not just the challenger who keeps on raising this question. The incumbent President Obama, too, raises the same question not only to defend but also to promote his records as President. Needless to say, the way the two camps answer the question has not changed from past elections: the challenger answering the question in the negative and the incumbent office holder in the affirmative.

Which is it, then? Are the American people better off now than they were four years ago, or are they worse off? The answer to this question, like the answer to most questions in life and in the world around us, is: “It depends.” This is so because there are so many factors on which the answer to this question depends.

In the first place, it depends on what indicators we look at. In view of the American people’s propensity to interpret Jefferson’s “the pursuit of happiness” in terms of material progress, it is not surprising that the catch phrase Bill Clinton used in his 1992 campaign, “It’s the economy, stupid!” has since elevated the state of the economy as the utmost concern for most voters. How is the economy doing, then? The answer to this question, too, turns out to be: “It depends.” It depends, in particular, on what kinds of economic indicators we look at in making our judgment about the performance of the American economy. Is it GDP? Wealth? Income? Employment? Stock prices? Credit rating?

Even after agreeing on which specific economic indicator we choose to look at, the answer is still: “It depends.” Let us suppose that the economy is doing better now than four years ago in terms of GDP growth, which is actually the case, considering that the American economy was in the midst of the Great Recession four years ago. This does not mean, however, that all sectors of the economy have expanded. Neither does it mean that all regions of the country have seen the expansion of their economies. It certainly does not mean that all people’s lives have improved in terms of their income. There are bound to be some people whose lives have improved, and others whose lives have deteriorated. Whether it was 1% of the population whose lives have improved, and 99% whose lives have deteriorated, is a moot point. The point is that the answer depends not only on “what” we choose to look at but also on “who” are being asked the question.

Take another economic indicator, say, the unemployment rate. Does a decline in the unemployment rate, though gradual, mean that more workers are better off now? Not necessarily, for the unemployment statistics, the way it is estimated, does not tell us how many workers have quit looking for jobs. Nor does it tell us whether those workers who are currently employed are happy with their jobs and feeling better off now than four years ago.

If it is unlikely that all the people are better off, or worse off for that matter, we may want to look at whether the American people’s lives have improved “on average” over the past four years. Even then, the answer is still: “It depends”, for different indicators give us different answers. Sorting out among who are better off and who are worse off gets more complicated as we start to look at other social indicators besides economic performance such as education, health, crime, security, and the environment. Indeed, when we ask the question, “Are we better off now?” should we not consider the state of our Planet, not just the state of the Union, concerning the health of our environment?

No matter how we look at the question, the only sensible answer we get is: “It depends.” The problem is, of course, “it depends” is not an acceptable answer in politics. And the heated debate just goes on with each candidate focusing his attention on that part of the state of the Union that justifies his claim. How would the Founding Fathers respond to the current climate of presidential election with all the rhetoric of military campaigns employed by both camps?

James Madison, for one, clearly anticipated this when he wrote in the Federalist Papers, No. 10: “So strong is this propensity of mankind to fall into mutual animosities that where no substantial occasion presents itself, the most frivolous and fanciful distinctions have been sufficient to kindle their unfriendly passion and excite their most violent conflicts.” What would he recommend as a way out of such war of unfriendly passion and violent conflicts, then? It is “knowledge”, as he wrote in a letter to W.T. Barry: “Knowledge will forever govern ignorance; and a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.” Will the American people live up to Madison’s expectation this time around and decide whom they vote after they have carefully examined all the factors on which the answer to the question of whether they are better off now than four years ago depend?

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