Americans have many reasons for gloom. The war in Iraq has yet to turn around, we can't agree on a solution for illegal immigration, and Lindsay Lohan isn't cute anymore. We also have one reason to be happy: the economy. But right now, we're in the middle of a good funk, and we don't want to let any sunshine spoil it.
When it comes to the economy, the national mood is a combination of dissatisfaction and fear. A recent Gallup poll found that 66 percent of Americans think national economic conditions are "only fair" or "poor." And we remember the old proverb: It's always darkest just before it goes totally black. Fully 70 percent think the economy is getting worse, compared with 23 percent who discern signs of improvement.
In the midst of a recession, a depression or the Irish potato famine, our morose outlook would make sense. But at the moment, it seems to have no basis in reality.
Unemployment stands at 4.5 percent, down from the peak rate of 6.3 percent four years ago. The stock market is near record levels. Economic growth, which slowed in the first quarter, has since rebounded. Inflation is running below 3 percent. But to paraphrase the old country song, we've enjoyed as much of this as we can stand.
It's true that not all the economic news is golden. Some people are out of work or drowning in debt. Gas prices are painfully high. People who expected their home values to keep climbing, no matter what, are learning the definition of the term "bubble." Health care and college costs, however, seem permanently immune to the law of gravity.
But even in the best of times, some trends fall below average. Taken as a whole, the economy is plenty healthy. So why do we insist on seeing it as sickly?
One reason is that we've gotten so accustomed to prosperity that we take it for granted. From 1971 through 1997, the unemployment rate never once fell to the level we now enjoy. In the 1970s, annual inflation was frequently in double-digits. Recessions used to come along every four or five years, but since 1991, we've had only one downturn, a mild one back in 2001.
Another reason for the pessimism is that we mistake the few bad indicators for a broad trend. When gas prices soar, it's tempting to conclude that we're on the verge of economic turmoil so awful that we will soon be eating tree bark to stay alive. Never mind that other prices are reasonably stable, and that the national economy has absorbed higher fuel costs without too much strain.