The political media has tried over the past couple days to distill the race down to one question – “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” – because if all the complexities of American politics can be answered with a simple yes/no question, it makes things much easier on everyone.
This week Mr. Obama is planning to undertake a tricky two-step of convincing wavering supporters being aggressively courted by Mr. Romney that they made the right decision in choosing him four years ago and that he has the country on its way to a sustainable recovery even if they do not always feel it [...]
“The president can say a lot of things, and he will, but he can’t tell you that you’re better off,” Mr. (Paul) Ryan said on Monday at a rally in Greenville, N.C. “Simply put, the Jimmy Carter years look like the good old days compared to where we are right now.”
Many have focused on the semantic elements of this question. If you focus on four years ago in the calendar year, then we may have been better off then. If you take it from the nadir of the Bush-created Great Recession, then we are clearly better off now. But I think this all misses the point entirely. People do not get a sense of the economy based on the totality of how it is doing in macroeconomic terms. They make their judgments based on how THEY feel. One man’s unemployment means a depression for that man. One woman getting a job back after a period of unemployment means a recovery for her. The electorate doesn’t move as a whole, and the economy doesn’t affect everyone equally.
What we know is that far, far too many people are still suffering from their own personal depression. And what we know is that the economic policies employed so far over the last four years, be they fiscal, monetary or balance sheet reduction-based, have been inadequate to the task. Don’t take it from me, take it from President Barack Obama, who graded himself with an “incomplete” on his work on the economy. “The steps that we have taken in saving the auto industry, in making sure that college is more affordable and investing in clean energy and science and technology and research, those are all the things that we are going to need to grow over the long term,” Obama told a local interviewer, but that says nothing about what people all over the country feel in their lives right now.
There’s a tendency on the part of elites of both parties to skip over the mass unemployment problem. It’s too messy and it soils their grand plans and policy pronouncements. Besides, it’s been with us for four years, and borrr-ing. This includes the Federal Reserve, which has been almost criminally absent on monetary policy at a time of economic emergency over the past few years. Ben Bernanke still has a choice to make on his next task, but he failed at his prior one.
Ultimately, the “are you better off” question is reductive and silly. But it also focuses attention on the need to meaningfully touch people’s lives in a way that modern political policymakers often don’t think about. The story of the economy is the story of human beings robbed of their potential, sitting idle for no defensible reason. It’s fair to ask if they should needlessly suffer.