Pessimism and Doom Our National Pastime: Flashback to the '70s

by: Mark J. Perry


Doom watching has of late become too much of a national pastime. It has afflicted far too many aspects of national policy: international relations, defense, natural resources, the economy, the environment, energy, etc. There has been pessimism, talk of inevitable decline, and of the twilight of democracy.

It is heady stuff. Entrapped by extrapolations and by rhetorical flourishes, it has too much affected the national mood. Yet, it too will be superseded. It is reminiscent of other periods of disenchantment. Yet, successfully to grapple with our problems, we shall have to diagnose them. Like Edmund Burke, two centuries ago, we are obliged to seek the sources of our present discontents. Yet we must avoid being swept up by the delights of diagnosis. We must assiduously avoid the seductive pleasures of making too much of our present discontents.

Our failures have indeed shaken self-confidence and prior assumptions. It has led not only to a well-advertised self-flagellation but also to a new style of moral imperialism, which combines a high degree of self-righteousness with a convenient way of evading responsibility.

The media did not originate but certainly reflect these national predilections. The media, reflecting the market and the free enterprise system, are quite ingenious in serving up just what the public wants to hear. In another period, this may have been cold war truculence, but recently it has been a steady diet of faults and flaws, real or imagined. I am a great believer in muckraking, when there is authentic muck to be raked. But one regrets seeing muck artificially created or embellished simply to satisfy current tastes.

Although that could easily have been written today, it was actually written more than 30 years ago by James R. Schlesinger, in his 1976 Foreign Affairs article "On Making Too Much Of Our Present Discontents," available here.

As Larry Kudlow reminds us often, the media today is trying to make pessimism our national pastime, reminiscent of the period in the 1970s discussed above. But before we buy into all of the media's "gloom and doom," consider the chart above, showing the U.S. unemployment rate over the last 50 years.

Put into a broad historical perspective, our current 5.5% jobless rate is: a) below the 50-year average unemployment rate of 5.85%, and b) way below the 7% average jobless rate during the 20-year period from 1975 to 1995 that included 4 official recessions. Sure, it would be great if unemployment got down to 4% again, but it could also be a lot worse - we could have Canada's 6.1% jobless rate or Europe's 6.6% rate.