Despite Everything You Think You Know, America Is on the Right Track (2023)

Ideas

Yes, America is a wounded giant—but it always has been, and the case for optimism is surprisingly strong.

By David Brooks
Despite Everything You Think You Know, America Is on the Right Track (1)

Negativity is by now so deeply ingrained in American media culture that it’s become the default frame imposed on reality. In large part, this is because since the dawn of the internet age, the surest way to build an audience is to write stories that make people terrified or furious. This is not rocket science: Evolution designed humans to pay special attention to threats. So, unsurprisingly, the share of American headlines denoting anger increased by 104 percent from 2000 to 2019. The share of headlines evoking fear surged by 150 percent.

If any event deserves negative coverage, the terrible coronavirus pandemic is it. And in the international media, 51 percent of stories in the first year of the pandemic were indeed negative, according to a 2020 study. But in the United States, a stunning 87 percent of the coverage was negative. The stories were negative even when good things were happening, such as schools reopening and vaccine trials. The American media have a particularly strong bad-news bias.

This permanent cloud of negativity has a powerful effect on how Americans see their country. When Gallup recently asked Americans if they were satisfied with their personal life, 85 percent said they were, a number that has remained remarkably stable over the past 40 years. But when Gallup asked Americans in January 2022 if they were satisfied with the direction of the country, only 17 percent said they were, down from 69 percent in 2000. In other words, there was a 68-percentage-point gap between the reality people directly experienced in their daily life and the reality they perceived through the media filter.

Read: The power of negative thinking

According to Ryan Streeter, the director of domestic-policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute and an expert on poll data, the people who are most pessimistic about the country are not the working class but highly educated and affluent people—the people, that is, who spend more time engaging with news media. The American right, for instance, finds itself in a state of perpetual apocalyptic alarm these days. Streeter observes that it’s not the poorer members of the conservative coalition who are pessimistic; it’s the affluent white Republicans who watch Tucker Carlson and believe the nation is on the verge of total destruction. Many of them believe that radical action, even violence, may be necessary to save it.

The first problem with all this pessimism is that it is ahistorical. Every era in American history has faced its own massive challenges, and in every era, the air has been thick with gloomy jeremiads warning of catastrophe and decline. Pick any decade in the history of this country, and you will find roiling turmoil.

But in all of those same decades, you will also find, alongside the chaos and the prophecies of doom, energetic dynamism and leaping progress. For example, the current historic moment is frequently compared with the 1890s, another period of savage inequality, rapid technological disruption, pervasive political dysfunction, and controversial waves of immigration. Someone alive in 1893—as unemployment surged from 3 percent to almost 19 percent among working-class Americans, as populism rose and spread, as class conflict and horrendous poverty became more rampant—might easily have concluded that this country was coming apart. And yet, the 1890s didn’t lead to American decline—they led to the American Century.

The second problem with the decline narrative is that it distorts reality. I’ve written my share of pessimistic stories over the past several years; no one can accuse me of being a Pollyanna. My basic take is that life in America today is objectively better than it was before but subjectively worse. We have much higher standards of living and many conveniences, but when it comes to how we relate to one another—whether in the realm of politics, across social divides, or in the intimacies of family and community life—distrust is rife, bonds are fraying, and judgments are harsh.

But that doesn’t mean the future isn’t going to be brighter than the present, or that America is in decline. The pessimists miss an underlying truth—a society can get a lot wrong as long as it gets the big thing right. And that big thing is this: If a society is good at unlocking creativity, at nurturing the abilities of its people, then its ills can be surmounted.

The economist Tyler Cowen suggests a thought experiment to illustrate this point.

Take out a piece of paper. In one column, list all of the major problems this country faces—inequality, political polarization, social distrust, climate change, and so on. In another column, write seven words: “America has more talent than ever before.”

Cowen’s point is that column B is more important than column A. Societies don’t decline when they are in the midst of disruption and mess; they decline when they lose energy. And creative energy is one thing America has in abundance.

Let’s look at all the ways humanity in general and America in particular continue to unleash human creativity:

First, over the course of many centuries, humanity has steadily reduced the amount of time wasted on drudgery. Turning on a tap is more time-efficient than drawing water from a well. Finding the closest ATM is more time-efficient than waiting in line at the bank. That’s oodles of time freed up to do something creative.

Read: We need a new science of progress

Productivity levels and living standards have increased so dramatically that it takes people less time to earn the money to buy the things they need. During the Middle Ages, an English laborer had to work 80 hours to pay for a pound of sugar. By 2021, an English laborer had to work only 1.89 minutes to do that. In 1800, it took 5.4 hours of work to buy 1,000 lumen-hours; in 1992, it took only 0.00012 hours of work for someone to light their home for six weeks.

From 1980 to 2018, the average amount of time a person had to work to afford the basket of commodities—energy, food, raw materials—that make up a typical middle-class lifestyle fell by 72 percent, according to the book Superabundance, by Marian L. Tupy and Gale L. Pooley. That, too, frees up a lot of time and resources that can be spent on other things.

Second, America invests an enormous amount in education. In 2018, Americans spent, on average, $14,400 on each elementary- and secondary-school student—34 percent more than the average for democracies with market-based economies. Americans spent $35,100 on every postsecondary-education student, double the average.

It’s hard to argue that that money is being efficiently spent. But one result of all of this spending is a significantly better-trained workforce: Since 1970, the share of American workers in high-skill jobs has increased from roughly 30 to 46 percent. Another result has been the continued superiority of the American university system. According to U.S. News & World Report’s rankings, eight of the top 10 universities in the world are American.

A better-educated workforce is a better-paid workforce. In the 1970s and ’80s, as America deindustrialized, wages did stagnate or decrease. But as the economy has more fully moved into the information age, that stagnation has dissipated. Michael R. Strain of the American Enterprise Institute notes, based on Congressional Budget Office data, that real median household income grew by 26 percent from 1990 to 2019. When you throw in social benefits such as Social Security and unemployment insurance, median household income increased by 55 percent. For those in the bottom fifth of household income, the after-tax and transfer-income growth during that period was 74 percent. Strain observes in his book The American Dream Is Not Dead that three-quarters of adults raised in working-class homes have a higher inflation-adjusted income than their parents did. In 1993, 28 percent of American children lived in poverty. By 2019, that number was down to 11 percent. A better-educated society is a richer and more creative society.

We talk a lot about income inequality in this country. And it’s true that from 1979 to 2007, inequality widened. But since then, income inequality has fallen as working-class wages have risen and recent administrations have moved to redistribute wealth downward.

Throughout most of American history, white men have been the beneficiaries of big education investments. That has left the creative potential of most Americans unfulfilled. Today, we are doing a much better job of investing in people across the board. The gains are there for all to see.

For example, in 2004, the political scientist Samuel P. Huntington wrote a book called Who Are We?, in which he argued that Mexican Americans were failing to climb the education and opportunity ladder the way previous immigrant groups had. That argument could not be made today, because all of the evidence points in the opposite direction. In 2000, roughly a third of Hispanic students dropped out of high school. Sixteen years later, only 10 percent did. Around the turn of the 21st century, only a third of Hispanic high school graduates aged 18-24 were enrolled in college; today, nearly half are. Hispanic college-enrollment rates surpassed white enrollment rates in 2012. The incomes of Hispanic people rose faster than those of any other major group in America from 2014 to 2019. These trends mean that the U.S. has a lot more people with the skills to start companies, innovate, and create new things.

The third way society unlocks creativity is by helping people live healthier, longer, and more energetic lives. American longevity rates have taken a beating recently because of deaths of despair—alcoholism, opioid overdoses—and because of the pandemic. But the long-term trend is still positive. In 1960, the average American lived 70.1 years; by 2015, that figure was 78.9. From 1990 to 2017, lung-cancer-death rates among men fell by 51 percent. In roughly the same time period, breast-cancer-death rates among women fell by 40 percent, and prostate-cancer-death rates fell by 52 percent.

From the October 2014 issue: What happens when we all live to 100?

We have essentially created a new stage of life. Americans retire, on average, by their early to mid-60s, yet many now remain vibrant into their mid-80s. As a society, we haven’t begun to build the institutions to harness all of this talent. But those latent abilities are out there, waiting to be put to better use.

Fourth, the United States has an excellent innovation infrastructure. America ranks second in the Global Innovation Index, behind only Switzerland. It leads the world in the amount of foreign direct investment it attracts. It hosts the world’s most important capital markets, and they are growing. In 2011, for example, $45.4 billion of venture capital was invested in young, innovative American firms. In 2021, $332.8 billion was invested in such firms.

Especially since 2020, the U.S. has seen a surge in small-business formation. It turns out that if a pandemic drives people indoors and gives them little to do, a significant portion of those people will do something entrepreneurial: The number of Black small-business owners, for example, was 28 percent higher in the third quarter of 2021 than it was pre-pandemic. A study by the economists Ryan A. Decker and John Haltiwanger found that these new businesses were not just individuals selling knickknacks on Etsy. “Our findings strongly suggest that the pandemic surge in business applications was followed by true employer business creation with significant labor market implications,” they wrote.

These investments and entrepreneurial energies produce such a steady stream of innovations and improvements that it is easy to take them for granted. From 2008 to 2017, the U.S. economy expanded by 15 percent, but total energy consumption went down. Carbon emissions per capita have plummeted this century; we are now back down to levels from the 1910s. The cost of flying across the country has fallen roughly fivefold since the mid-1970s.

Not so long ago, if you wanted to keep up with the Joneses in your entertaining life, you needed a whole room full of equipment: a TV, a VCR, a game console, a stereo system, a telephone, a camera. Now it’s possible to replace all of that equipment—plus maps and atlases, magazines and newspapers, even books—with a single smartphone.

And I’ve yet to mention the two most impressive innovations of recent years—mRNA vaccines and the stunning gains in artificial intelligence. Who knows where AI will take us, but in the short term, it means that everybody can have a somewhat well-informed personal research assistant. As Tyler Cowen notes, we’re in the middle of a radical increase in the amount of intelligence in the world.

This growth has a healing effect. During the misery years of deindustrialization, factories closed, especially across the Midwest. Towns and cities were decimated, but many of those places have since recovered: Strain writes, citing a 2018 Brookings Institution report, that 62 percent of the most affected counties successfully transitioned to new industries; a further 22 percent of those counties had strong economic performance over the previous two decades while maintaining their old manufacturing sectors.

We seem to be in the middle of a surge in manufacturing employment. During the first few months of COVID, American manufacturers cut about 1.3 million jobs. By the fall of 2022, those manufacturers had added about 1.4 million jobs, a net gain of 67,000 manufacturing jobs. That number could further rise as firms bring more manufacturing back home to reduce their exposure to Chinese supply chains.

This fall, Rahm Emanuel, the U.S. ambassador to Japan, gave a fascinating talk to foreign correspondents in Tokyo about the global investments flowing into the United States from places such as Japan: Panasonic is investing $4 billion to make batteries in Kansas; Honda announced a $700 million investment in Ohio. The most striking element of the presentation was the maps showing where investments are being made. One map showed the locations of 56 mega-investments of more than $1 billion each—investments in auto, semiconductors, clean energy, and the like. Only two of those investments are in California; six are in Illinois, and five are in Iowa. After years of capital and wealth fleeing to the coasts, there are now signs of a rebound in the places that were left behind.

I’ve bludgeoned you with statistics in order to make a point: Pessimism about our future is unwarranted. You may think that one major American political party has gone crazy, and I will agree with you. You can point to all of the ways in which life in America is infuriating and unjust, and I will agree with you there too. But the story of America is a story of convulsion and reinvention. We go through moments when the established order stops working. People and movements rise up, and things change. The culture is a collective response to the problems of the moment; as new problems become obvious, the culture shifts. We’ve been in the middle of one of those tumultuous transition periods since, I’d say, 2013. But 2022 evinced hopeful signs that we’re coming out of it.

If there is one lesson from the events of the past year, it is that open societies such as ours have an ability to adapt in a way that closed societies simply do not. Russia has turned violent and malevolent. China has grown more authoritarian and inept. Meanwhile, free democratic societies have united around the Ukrainians as they battle to preserve the liberal world order. And American voters seem to finally be adapting to the threat Donald Trump poses to our democracy, forming a robust anti-Trump coalition that will significantly lessen his chances of ever working in the White House again.

America is a wounded giant, and many of its wounds are self-inflicted. But America has always been a wounded giant. And it has always stumbled forward, driven by an inner turbine of ambition and aspiration that knows no rest.

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