In his New York Times column this morning, Ross Douthat says that, in spite of the dark economic news on the horizon, we should beware the “pessimism bubble.” Just as there is such a thing as being irrationally optimistic about the future (the housing boom, anyone?), we can take the tendency to doom and gloom too far as well:
Pessimism bubbles formed during America’s last two economic crises — the stagflation era in the late 1970s and the post-cold war recession that ushered Bill Clinton into the White House. Go back and read Jimmy Carter’s famous “malaise speech,” which liberals have lately been rehabilitating. With its warnings about retrenchment, rationing and a permanent energy crisis, it feels like a contemporary document. But it isn’t, and Carter’s prophecies were wrong: the grimmest speech any modern president has given was delivered just a few years before America kicked off a long era of impressive economic growth.
Maybe this time is different. The recession is deeper. Our debts are piled higher. The gloom is more pervasive.
But even now, there isn’t a major power in the world that wouldn’t happily change places with the United States. Our weaknesses are real, but so is our potential for resilience. While our rivals (in Asia as well as the West) face a slow demographic decline, our population is steadily increasing. The European Union’s recent follies make our creaking 200-year-old institutions look flexible by comparison. And China can throw up all the high-speed rails and solar panels it wants, but it won’t change the fact that most of the country is still sunk in rural poverty.
In everything, Douthat says, a little perspective is in order: “The more we remember the pessimism bubbles of the past, the better our chances of bursting out of this one.”
What do you think? Are we lacking a little perspective in our current situation, or do Americans need the wake-up call of pondering the future in a more sober — some might say pessimistic — light?