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Thursday, March 26, 2015

American Optimism

About five years ago, I was driving on an interstate after a long conversation with a friend who is far more liberal than I (not hard).  He went on a long harangue about drought, possible global famine, income inequality, inevitable economic decline and global warming. We agreed on climate change except that I said he needed more faith in technology. Solar and wind energy were renewable and virtually pollution free and were becoming more efficient each year and the energy companies were using high tech to find fossil fuels. He shook his head and essentially said that America was doomed along with most of the planet.

Driving along, I noticed a bumper sticker on a car in front of me. It said, “Annoy a liberal. Work hard and be happy.” I laughed out loud but it made me think. People left of center tend to be more negative than those who are apolitical or center-right. Most Americans do not sit around moaning. They get up each day, do their work, take care of their families and are not bitter.

What is it about Americans? I dug up a fascinating study that was undertaken in the dark days of the Great Recession (2008-2009). The Harris Poll in a joint venture with the prestigious Financial Times of London (the salmon colored newspaper you may notice at upscale newsstands) found in December, 2008 that the French (63%), Italians (62%), Spanish (59%), Britains (58%) and Germans (52%) were pessimistic about their economic situation. What about Americans? At the time, unemployment was 11.8% which was just below one depression benchmark of 12.0%. Some 54% of Americans were OPTIMISITIC about their economic situation even though we were in the biggest economic crunch since the 1933 bottom of the Great Depression.

Recently, I ran in to a financial planner and asked him why baby boomers had not saved much for retirement. Was it because they were spendthrifts or immature? He smiled and shook his head. “Americans do not save for a rainy day because many just don’t believe in rainy days. That is why people loved Ronald Reagan so much. He ran up our debt but his sunny optimism made you feel good about the country and, more importantly, about ourselves. He was America’s cheerleader.”

Separately, I saw an interview a few years back with Richard Gervais, a British comic and sometime writer who created the popular show, The Office. The program originated in Britain and then came to the U.S. in a different format. He said when he came to America, the show had to be adjusted fairly significantly. Essentially, he said it was because Americans were different from the Brits. “Americans are smarter, have better teeth, are more ambitious, somewhat heavier, and the big difference is that you are more optimistic than us.”

Why? Well, we are nation of immigrants and I believe that helps. Someone, maybe far in to the past, came here seeking a better life and many found it. Historically, Americans firmly believe that each new generation will live better than the prior one did.

Now all that has shifted in the last 18-24 months. I see it talking to young people. In front of a large group of 21 year olds recently, nearly 90% felt that they would never receive social security. I tried to explain that to save the system at some point both social security and medicare would face means testing and the rich and very affluent would have social security taxed away and medicare benefits cut severely. Some shook their heads but many ignored me. Several have approached me and said they will never own a home as their student loans will pin them down for the next three decades. The American dream for them is disappearing.

What they fail to see is that good old Yankee ingenuity will triumph. Take three blue chip companies, for example, that some analysts perceive as stodgy. Every year Johnson & Johnson grows their income and increases their dividend via new product development and selling to new markets. 3M is a huge company that consistently comes up with new products that the public wants and their footprint in Asia is unusually large. Or, how about Schlumberger, an oil services giant, that seems to come with one oil field innovation after another and increases the yield from every well their new technologies touch?

Clearly, things are not great right now. Yet, it saddens me to see American youth so discouraged when they have their whole lives ahead of them. And, the media feeds in to it constantly with story after story about how the current crop of college graduates will often not live nearly as well as their parents did. We need to reinstate our 200+ year trend of American optimism. Positive thinking coupled with positive action really works!

If you would like to contact Don Cole directly, you may reach him at doncolemedia@gmail.com

1 comment:

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