A Nation of Eeyores

Listen to this 'Talk of the Nation' topic

Word on the street these days is that the U.S. is in dire straits — start up a conversation about the price of gas, the price of food, home foreclosures, or the environment, and it's like we're all living in Eeyore's corner of the 100 Acre Wood ("Eeyore's Gloomy Place: Rather Boggy and Sad"). As bad as folks say the big issues are, though, "when asked about their own jobs, schools, doctors and communities, people tell pollsters the situation is good." How about that? According to Gregg Easterbrook, that's because (war in Iraq aside), the situation is good. Really. So think about the good in your life and tell us how you're actually better off now, then head to a nearby creek for a game of Poohsticks... Because after all, Eeyore almost always wins.

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Better off than 5 years ago? Personally, yes I am. I'm out of the Navy, have a college degree and I don't have a job that requires that I leave home for 6 months at a time and might have to die.

Sent by Fred in Portland Oregon. | 2:54 PM | 6-16-2008

NOT NOT NOT GOOD! Haven't had a raise in 3 years but the INTEREST on my student loans goes UP UP UP. As well as the cost of gas HIGHLY affects my 1 hour (each way to work) commute.... and please don't try to suggest mass transit, I live in the Rural of all Rural areas.

I can't WAIT to hear how "wonderful" your life is.

Sent by Linda Dougherty | 2:54 PM | 6-16-2008

I earn much less money because I am in the real estate industry. Everything costs a lot more. We are less safe due to the Iraq war. Yes, things are worse for me now than before.

Sent by Greta Joseph | 2:58 PM | 6-16-2008

Easterbrook: What planet do you live on? My 401K is 1/3 what it was two years ago, the Nasdac is half of what is was in 2000, food and fuel are through the roof. My business had to lay off 1/3 of the workers. WTF?

Sent by Rick Gippner | 3:01 PM | 6-16-2008

I notice you spent very little time on your last topic on how we've never had it so good. I am on a fixed income and because of the rising costs of fuel, food, medicine and everything else, basic bills exceed my monthly income.

If things are so good in this country, you won't miss my contributions.

Sent by r. in macon | 3:01 PM | 6-16-2008

I know that I'm better off than 5 years ago. Of course 5 years ago I was in graduate school and now I'm in a high-paying job. Things are going well for me, because I am one of the people that has the means to provide for myself. Is the nation, as a whole, worse off? Perhaps not by standards of living, but we live off of debt. One day that will catch up with us.

Sent by Joe Grill | 3:02 PM | 6-16-2008

Calculations which use "real dollars" generally fail to incorporate the value of those dollars in foreign currencies which we must use to purchase many of our imported goods. A rise of 30% adjusted for inflation is not really accurate when the US dollar has fallen 40% against the euro.

Sent by Robert Stein | 3:05 PM | 6-16-2008

To pull out a topic about how well-off this country is and devote so little time to it or listener's comments is irresponsible journalism. I could tell from the tone of your voice you wanted to get off that subject as quickly as possible.

If this country's so well off, perhaps you won't miss my contributions in the future.

Sent by R. in Macon, Ga. | 3:05 PM | 6-16-2008

I don't need the media to tell me how things are. A couple of months ago I could fill my gas tank for $25, now $40 doesn't even fill it and I drive a small car. Though I am more fortunate than most, I am sick of hearing people tell me things aren't that bad. There are real people struggling to make ends meet and for people like Mr. Easterbrook to continually dismiss it because of some stupid statistics is very short sighted. Stop reading statistics, get out of your office and talk to people.

Sent by Donna | 3:06 PM | 6-16-2008

In June 1970 the average starting salary for an BS in Engineering was $11,000. Adjusted for inflation that's $61,565.31 in 2007 (and I think that's understated). In silver its 15 * 11000 = 165,000. No beginning engineer is getting 11000 oz of silver today and few are getting 62,000 or better. One man could support a family of 4 in the 1950's and 1960's. Today that's certainly not true. Real disposable income, adjusted for inflation, for most Americans, has gone down since the 1960's. I don't know what world these economists live in.

Sent by Rich | 3:06 PM | 6-16-2008

Lies, Damn Lies, and Statistics Department

Easterbrook repeatedly uses a very deceiving statistic to "prove" how good things are for all of us: "Per capita income." Neal Conan should have stopped him cold as soon as he said those words.

Easterbrook knows very well (although it doesn't support his position) that if Bill Gates joins two middle class people in a room, the per capita income in that room skyrockets. His presence does nothing to the median income in the room.

The per capita (i.e., "average") income in the U.S. is up because the top 1/2 of 1 percent of earners have had a bonanza. The rest of us have not.

Sent by David Paquette | 3:06 PM | 6-16-2008

The Iraq War and the financial drag it represents for our economy and for our ideals about ourselves and our values is too large just to set aside so that Mr Easterbrook can publish a book! I'm amazed that NPR would give this representative of the financial elite time on the radio to push his book.
Millions of Americans could give you good reasons to prefer other eras to this one and the reasons are not always financial ones. What a set of threadbare arguments this guy has to offer!
Shame on you NPR.

Sent by Francis Michael Sharp | 3:06 PM | 6-16-2008

better, don't think so. while we can afford what we need at this point, we have cut back on all fronts. I agree with the retired professor from NY, with house prices falling, gas (travel of any kind) increasing, increasing home energy prices, food costs raising and the stock market lowering the value of my retirement and investment accounts, I would gladly go back to 2006. Sorry I couldn't give you something more positive.

Sent by Don Lampley | 3:07 PM | 6-16-2008

I'd like to know what state you live so I can move there. Someone didn't tell the government to give a cost of living raise to the military enlisted, unless you count that extra $2-$3 dollars to keep us off welfare and food stamps. Education is so bad in my district in California that Janitor's time is schedule so that the bathrooms aren't being cleaned. To top that off the Governor of My State has just cut 10% from Education. (Along with Police, Fire, Parks etc) I can not afford to bus my kids to school because I have to pay transportation cost to this district, and at $4.50 a gallon I can't afford to drive them myself. So my outlook on the economy and the state of affairs of the country isn't that great, so once again I ask where do you live?

Sent by Amber Brown | 3:07 PM | 6-16-2008

Oh really. Easterbrook is as ever an apologist for the way things are. In fact, the ax is about to fall. How about the doubling of the national debt, the fact that Social Security and Medicare are on the skids, with a decline in every manufacturing sector, outsourcing of much touted service jobs, and an infrastructure that is crumbling? And shrugging off healthcare and education woes is like leaving the price of oil and food out of the inflation index. My husband's job of 40 years is endangered by leadership that is similarly blind or misguided - so my personal life mirrors the general decline of this country that Easterbrook denies. The brevity of the segment did not allow for the resounding negative response you would have gotten - how about a round II with input from the General Accounting Office?

Sent by Susan Pizzo | 3:08 PM | 6-16-2008

I think the "good old days" refers more to our social structure and feelings of connections with each other and the environment. Definitely health, financial security, education, etc are much better today. Yet we, as a people, feel more lonely and more disconnect. Despite technology's ability to allow us to correspond more quickly with each other, in general technology tends to isolate us. Look into Wendell Berry (any of his essays), Jerry Mander's book "in absence of the sacred," or Jared Diamond ("guns, germs, and steel" and "collapse"). These authors bring into focus a lot of issues that cause us to feel like our life today is not so hot.

Sent by Kim Hamblin-Hart | 3:09 PM | 6-16-2008

When I think about the good in my life - I feel so fortunate and thankful. I have a nice house, a wonderful husband. Our daughter recently married and she and her husband seem happy. I was able to retire and now have time to paint and garden.

When I hear about those big issue items I do feel discouraged. How ARE we going to solve all those things?

Sent by Amanda | 3:13 PM | 6-16-2008

We are worse off. We live in Michigan, My husbands' last 3 employers have downsized or outsourced his position. As a small business owner, my sales (and profits) have declined because of the economic climate here.

We can not afford health insurance and have cut our budget to the bone. We don't have cable, cell phones,eat out or travel. We use the public library and shop at resale stores for clothes. We have a large vegetable garden and I preserve what I can for the winter.

As for the unemployment numbers. I believe they are bigger than reported. My husband doesn't have a job, yet his unemployment benefits have expired which is how unemployment figures are calculated. So he is not counted along with many others in his situation.

Sent by Karen in Michigan | 3:14 PM | 6-16-2008

This is interesting. I'm starting to hear this, "it's not as bad as it seems" argument more and more lately, most recently on Larry King a few nights ago and now on Talk of the Nation. Bluntly, I believe those who make it are in many ways out of touch. Though we haven't seen a (technically defined) recession since 2001 and unemployment is relatively low, it seems to me that GDP growth has generally been disproportionately distributed, with the loin's share going to executives, and unemployment in this economy (accented by rising fuel and food costs) is not as important than underemployment.

Sent by Billy Ross | 3:14 PM | 6-16-2008

Mr. Eastbrook must be talking about some other United States. Everyone I know is either laid off or under threat of being laid off. We have a Presidential regime that's proven to have pushed spin to new levels of "exageration". Our monthly costs rose 35% in the last 2 fiscal quarters. These last 8 years has shown more blatent misuse/waste/outright theft of our tax dollars. Go to work for The Onion or maybe Pravda.

Sent by Bernie Watts | 3:15 PM | 6-16-2008

In my community, we are definitely not better off than we were five years ago. The largest employers in the area have laid off employees in the last two years. The jobs we have lost are higher paying, tech jobs--not so easily replaced. This isn't just antecdotal for me. Friends have lost jobs and have had to leave the area to find comparable employment. The real estate market is down. Gas and food prices are up.
Shauna, Boise

Sent by Shauna | 3:21 PM | 6-16-2008

Good thing it was radio and not a public forum as the audience might have stormed the stage. What drug is this guy on? What an idiotic piece. It's an important subject but to devote so little time to it shows how little concern your staff has for what's really going on in this country.

Maybe Mr. Esterbrook can write a book while he's waiting in the unemployment line after uttering such stupid, stupid remarks.

Maybe we'd be better off if NPR dispensed with Mr. Esterbrook. End of Story.

Sent by R. in Macon, Ga. | 3:24 PM | 6-16-2008

I could barely listen to the last subject. I am a college educated person, who has been out of work for 6 months, most working stiffs never saw a pay raise over the last 3 years as their pay raise went to the CEO's fat salary. I know good, hardworking people who are about to loose everything after a life time of hard work. Gregg Easterbrook is completely out of touch. Tell him to spend 2 days in the midwest, it might tell him a differnt story

Sent by Cyn | 3:25 PM | 6-16-2008

It is appalling that Mr. Easterbrook took up valuable time on TOTN. Get some REAL people on your show. I have NO health care for the first time in my life (at $900 per month} and I am in decent health. I don't have space to list it all and I can no longer contribute to my local NPR affiliate. So there.

Sent by Elaine | 3:35 PM | 6-16-2008

What I see in my town is a huge decline in real estate values.

3399 Ambleside Drive 48XXX - Sold in 2000 - $285,000 and Sold in 2007 for $200,000 - a decline of 29.8%
5105 Pinebrook Ct., 48XXX Sold in 2000 - $254,900 and in 2008 for $200,000 a decline of 21.5%
6472 Marble Lane 48XXX Sold in 2001 - $280,000 - and in 2008 for $218,660 a decline of 21.9%

Sent by Brian Masck | 3:43 PM | 6-16-2008

Are we better off? I'd like to see Mr. Norris' views and facts debated on-air.

By FLOYD NORRIS
The New York TImes
Published: April 12, 2008

THE unemployment rate is low. The jobless rate is high.

Those two seemingly contradictory statements are especially true for American men in what should be the prime of their working lives. Those facts may help to explain the stark pessimism of Americans about the economy, and shed some light on the rise of illegal immigration as a political issue...
(read the rest: http://tinyurl.com/4akzww)

Floyd Norris comments in his blog at norris.blogs.nytimes.com.

Sent by Brian Masck | 3:45 PM | 6-16-2008

Sorry Greg,

Not buying it....

"Per capita" income may be high, but the fundamentals do not look so good. Support for education (especially college education) is slipping. Job security is worse than ever. Access to health care is declining.

You did not discuss median income, and income disparity...

There are no sound policy discussions regarding how to handle >$100 barrel oil and maintain the current US economic system.

Come on Greg and Brooking's Fellows, can't you do better than "Don't worry be happy?"

Sent by Curt | 4:33 PM | 6-16-2008

I am so glad that Gregg Easterbrook thinks we are at the best place we have ever been. I don't see it. I look at my married, adult children and those of my friends and I don't see that they are better off than their parents at the same time in our lives.

Most of my friends and I were able to be full time parents when our children were young. We purchased lovely homes, went on vacations, attended plays and concerts. We did this all on one income and one professional home manager. Once our children were more independent, we returned to our outside professions or returned to school to acquire new professions.

Today, both our children and their spouses work outside the home in order to have less than we had.

I don't know what the best time is/was, but I do not think this is the best. Sorry Gregg

Sent by CPA Bubby | 4:38 PM | 6-16-2008

Mr Easterbrook should try taking a class in statistics; average (arithmetic mean) is only a good measure of the central value of a distribution that is normal*, which US wealth distribution most certainly is not. After all, 25% of US income is earned by less than 1% of the population.

This means that measuring people's well-being but such things as PCI is misleading.

Fifty years ago when my father, a toolmaker, his house cost him roughly two years income. I've got an MS in Engineering, and a nominal income about 2.5 times that of one of today's toolmakers; for me to purchase my house today would be about 3 years of my income, or about 8 years of my father's.

Of course, there is also more to "happiness" than material well-being. Most people are much less secure in their jobs, making them much closer to economic disaster, they get to watch children horribly indebted to go to a good college (I could earn enough in a summer to pay a semester's tuition at a first-rate private college, had about 20% of my expenses covered by financial aid, about 20% by my parents, and had the remainder covered by federally subsidized loans, and my parents were not expected to pauperize themselves to support me in school). My elder daughter's financial aid was nil, subsidized loans could cover less than 5% of her expenses, and heIr summer job just about covered books.

--------------------
* The normal or Gaussian distribution is the "bell-shaped curve," so-called because it looks vaguely like a bell.

Sent by Ed C | 5:01 PM | 6-16-2008

in Response to the comments by David Paquette: That was exactly what I thought as soon as he started touting "per capita income" as his standard of measurement. How much is that statistic swayed by the increasing disparity and huge compensations of top executives? Also, how much is is swayed by the fact that more now than ever, both parents have to work to make ends meet? So, it appears there is more income in the house but more money is going out for childcare and the rising costs of food and gas, so it is totally misleading.

I was also very disappointed the Neal Conan did not point out that Gregg Easterbrook seems to have cherry-picked his statistic by which to measure the economy, while ignoring the mountains of data that contradict his assertions.

Sent by S R B | 5:10 PM | 6-16-2008

Whatever the state of things are today aside, is this really the metric we should be adopting?

What about how good or bad things should/could be if we the public had elected different leaders/supported different policies? What if we hadn't wasted so much money and human lives fighting a war in Iraq? What if a certain US Senator from Texas hadn't stuck wording deregulating the mortgage industry into a must-pass bill back then? What if we had implemented tougher CAFE auto fuel standards years ago (such that we had to buy a lot less of that $5/gallon gas)?

Sadly, Mr. George Bernard Shaw has it right:

"Democracy is a device that ensures we shall be governed no better than we deserve."

Maybe Mr. Easterbrook has a point: we should be very thankful that, given the terrible choices that WE made in 2000 and 2004, things aren't a whole heck of a lot worse. Given those terrible choices...many would argue we deserve terrible things.

And maybe that's why Obama is enjoying such popularity...many of us are indeed hopeful about what could only be if a few folks with mostly decent ideas were put in office.

Sent by Ken | 5:12 PM | 6-16-2008

Gregg Easterbrook gushes happily that "per capita income" income is as high as it's ever been, and some months ago the Secretary of the Treasury told us that "average income" is higher than it's ever been. But isn't it true that both "per capita" and "average" incomes are heavily affected by the increasing disparity between the rich and the not so rich? What is definitely true is that both of these individuals surely know the difference between average, median, and per capita incomes, and yet they prefer to talk about the average, in one way or another, while they both must know that the median is a much more accurate measure of the state of most individuals. Perhaps their view is happier than most because they sit high on the hill and simply don't want to see the view from below.

Sent by Old Bear | 5:29 PM | 6-16-2008

In the 90's, I had a job that had some opportunity for advancement, a 401K, health insurance, pd $9.60/hr, gas cost 1/3 what it does now, everything else was cheaper, rent, utilities, food, etc. There was no 911, no Gitmo, no OPEN suspension of civil rights to the degree there is today, the electoral process had at least a veneer of legitimacy, and most importantly, there was HOPE.

Today we have a government that meets or exceeds 14 descriptors of fascism, I have a TEMP job that barely pays $8/hr, cost of daily staples is through the roof, no insurance, no retirement plan, no advancement, and the only hope remaining as far as I can see is for one or more of the nations of the world we have irritated in some way to invade us and use the ensuing chaos to find a way to escape to anywhere other than here.

Life is better? For WHOM, exactly, because it CERTAINLY isn't me?

Sent by Only mildly disgruntled | 8:20 PM | 6-16-2008

Perhaps it is less the current economy and more the trends the cause the negative view. Most people have some ability to extrapolate to the future, even though many fail to adequately plan and prepare.

The near term economic problems are not likely to be difficult for me, but when I look ahead 10 or 20 years toward retirement, the picture is decidedly less rosy.

The government has retiree health care obligations it cannot possibly fulfill without huge tax increases (and we all know how much the Wall Street Journal types love those). Those, and other fiscal problems are only made worse by the hundreds of billions squandered in Iraq, and the reversal from budget surpluses to increasing budget deficits. The transition away from fossil fuel energy sources will be expensive and difficult, and is not too many decades away. Global warming aside, where will the burgeoning desert southwest communities get potable water after all the underground aquifers have been sucked dry? Where will we get the billions (or trillions?) to repair our crumbling infrastructure? Or is it cheaper to just let the bridges collapse and pay modest sums to victims' families?

Living mostly nicely up to now, we have collectively borrowed heavily against our future. Those debts will come due. Instead of a government serving the long term interests of it's citizens, I see a government that often serves the short term interests of cronies and wealthy campaign contributors. How can one not be pessimistic?

Sent by Steve in Los Angeles | 2:19 AM | 6-17-2008

If the per capita income was a measure of how much each person made instead of the AVERAGE of what everyone made, the guest may have had a point. But as he should know full well, income inequality hasn't been this high since the Guilded Age in the late twenties, and although productivity has gone up, wages for most workers haven't gone up in years. Oil is more expensive than it's ever been, home forclosures are at record levels, food prices are climbing higher and higer. That's just a small portion of things that are going on and have been going on in this country for the past five years and beyond. Mr. Easterbrook is most assuredly out of touch.

Sent by Daniel | 5:16 AM | 6-17-2008

What is good in my life is that I have the intelligence and education to recognize a scoundrel. How much money does Easterbrook earn cherry picking data and distorting statistics? Pay me half that for a month and I will torpedo every one of his claims that life is wonderful and Americans are whiners who need to shut up and be grateful for the meager options are leaders have inflicted upon us. Here's a free one: air quality has improved in America because we have abandoned our manufacturing base and now import our goods from totalitarian regimes using prison labor and sweatshops, and are subject to no environmental concerns. The bad news is that Asian smog is so out of control that it now makes its way across oceans and is fouling our air. Shame on WBEZ for letting this propaganda on air unchallenged.

Sent by Mark Baird | 1:30 PM | 6-17-2008

It's not the media it's just the way it is. I just got my Bush tax "stimulus" check the other day and because I didn't earn enough money last year I only got $300 instead of the $600 they paraded around. When the poor and middle classes keep getting shafted we get pissed off and we don't need any B.S. telling us that "we're better off" then were are!! With the state of health care, gas, food, rent/house payments etc. it's a wonder people aren't rising up against the corporate government and the corporate media who perpetuate the "less you make the happier you are" fallacy.

Sent by Harold | 2:33 PM | 6-17-2008

Shame, shame on you TOTN! Easterbrook is a charletan and should have been met with serious skepticism by Mr. Conan. You gave him the stage without any serious questioning about his statistics and premise. Shame on you for helping to support the lies.

Sent by Terry | 2:53 PM | 6-17-2008

My BS detector pegged its needle when I heard Mr. Easterbrook cite per capita income as an indication that Americans are doing better than ever. He should know that any recent rise in PCI is due to the dramatic increase in income among a tiny fraction of Americans. This suggests that he is either dishonest or ignorant. Which begs the question, why is someone like that given a national forum?

Sent by Rich | 2:39 PM | 6-18-2008

Eleven years ago, I started my business on a very short "shoestring". After one uphill battle after another it's finally all coming together, just like it's supposed to. Even in this "dismal" economy, we continue to flourish. Things are absolutely better for me, my family and my company than ever before. My version of the "American Dream" is alive and well... and coming true. Despite what many people think we still live in a great country. We have alot to be proud of. Let's not forget how lucky we are to be Americans!

Sent by Jon Williams | 3:44 PM | 6-23-2008

Reading all these comments depresses me. Of course Americans have it made. Look at the news about the rest of the world: starvation because there are no modern roads to deliver food to multitudes, 1000% inflation, assassination of political dissenters. Hey, I don't have enough money to do whatever I want. My college-educated son is unemployed, and my other son lives in Cedar Rapids. So, I could look at my life today as miserable. However, if I need more money, I could take another job. My son will get another job, and my other son's house was not flooded (although his city was definitely changed). We still have options. I refuse to succumb to such whining.

Sent by I'm no whiner | 10:26 PM | 6-23-2008