The unemployment rate is 4.9 percent. Consumer sentiment is back at its 1996 level. The Census Bureau says median incomes jumped by more in 2015 than in any year on record. Poverty is down. Inequality is declining. Health insurance coverage is up. We are far, far outpacing our peer nations.
But I can feel myself trying to write it. The to-be-sure paragraph. The everything-isn’t-great paragraph. Male labor force participation remains low. Inflation-adjusted median household incomes are below their 1999 peak. Plenty of people have been left behind by this recovery.
I’ve been struggling with this since the Census Bureau’s report came out. Is it time to say what few have dared say since 2008? Is it time to say that the economy is actually in pretty good shape — that the crisis, and even the “meh-ness,” is over? Is my reluctance to do so based on an analysis of the economy or a negativity bias that’s begun to cloud my vision?
Here’s a thought experiment. What if Mitt Romney had won in 2012? What if it was his economy that was seeing sub–5 percent unemployment, falling poverty, and the largest median wage gains since the Census Bureau began keeping records?
There would be parades in the streets. President Romney would be hailed as the second coming of Ronald Reagan — or maybe even better! Progressivism would be discredited. The fundamental wisdom of conservatism would be affirmed.
Remember, Romney merely promised he would cut unemployment below 6 percentage points by the end of his first term. "I can tell you that over a period of four years, by virtue of the policies that we’d put in place, we’d get the unemployment rate down to six percent, and perhaps a little lower," he told Time during the campaign.
Reality, as we are living in it, has outpaced even his campaign promises.
This would, of course, be nonsense — the president doesn’t control the economy, even if he or she is ultimately held responsible for its gyrations. But pointing out that it’s nonsense would, I am quite sure, seem churlish after the Romney administration mailed a bottle of champagne to every household in America. Romney would have promised to heal the economy, and he would have made good on that promise.
In today’s environment, however, roughly the opposite is happening. Donald Trump’s rise is so remarkable that it requires explanation. One of the main explanations offered is that his run is powered by “economic anxiety.” That’s led to a more negative economic outlook among the chattering class. Trump’s success proves that Americans are suffering under a weak economy; all that’s left is to assemble the data points and anecdotes that prove the narrative.
Which is all to say that we refract our economic analysis through the lens of politics and policy — particularly, though not only, in election years.
Then there’s journalism’s own negativity bias. Few get into economic journalism to simply describe the state of the economy on any given day. Most of us attracted to the field are there to draw attention to the plight of the poor, to the wrongdoing of banks, to the groups left behind. If you tend to focus on the bright side of the American economy — or even on the averages — you’re probably not going to spend your life covering it.
Worse, it feels callous to be a college-educated journalist, sitting in a major urban center, telling people things are great. The averages might look cheery, but millions are left out of even the best economy. Few readers send angry emails when you focus on what’s wrong with the recovery. Plenty send angry emails — and the charges sting — when you focus on what’s right with it.
But I keep thinking about the Romney counterfactual. If this economy weren’t entangled in the narratives of Obama’s slow recovery and Trump’s rise, would we be celebrating it? I think we would be. Would we be right to celebrate it? I think so. It isn’t perfect — no economy is — but it’s a lot better than anyone expected four years ago.