The End of Economic Pessimism?

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By many measures, the U.S. economy is strong right now. Unemployment is near its lowest point in decades. Inflation has slowed down. Wages have grown faster than prices since last year. Stock prices have surged.

But many Americans are not feeling it, and say the economy is in bad shape. The persistent pessimism has baffled many economists.

The situation may be changing. American confidence in the economy has picked up in recent months, surveys show. And President Biden’s campaign hopes the turnaround will boost his re-election prospects.

Still, measures of consumer confidence remain lower than normal. Why have Americans resisted the good economic news? Experts have tried to answer that question for months. Today’s newsletter will cover seven of their leading explanations.

The first, and most obvious, explanation is rising prices. Historically, Americans hate high inflation. For one, it is universal; high prices affect everyone. In comparison, high unemployment directly affects only a minority, even during recessions.

“When prices rise, it feels like something is taken away from you,” my colleague Jeanna Smialek, who covers the economy, told me.

Inflation has cooled recently. But that does not mean that prices have necessarily decreased; they are merely rising much more slowly than they were when the inflation rate was at its highest. Consider: The average price for one pound of chocolate chip cookies peaked in March. But it still costs about $5.10 today, up from $3.50 four years ago.

Among higher prices, one category stands out for many Americans: housing. It is typically the most expensive thing that Americans own or pay for. As housing costs increase, they can squeeze people’s ability to pay for anything else.

And costs have increased. Rents have climbed by about 22 percent since late 2019, and a key measure of home prices is up by about 45 percent.

During the pandemic, many people looked forward to the day when things would return to normal. So far, they haven’t.

Murder rates have fallen in the last two years, but they are still higher than they were before the pandemic. Dangerous driving is more common. Downtown foot traffic remains down in many cities. The upcoming presidential election will likely duplicate the contest from the middle of the pandemic.

These factors do not always appear in economic statistics, but they color people’s perceptions of their lives and the economy.

Economic confidence surveys capture the political mood. When a Republican is in the White House, Democrats tend to take a more negative view of the economy. And vice versa.

But the trend is not symmetrical. Consider this data from the pollster Civiqs: When Donald Trump won the 2016 election, Democrats’ views of the economy soured but remained mostly positive until the pandemic. After Biden defeated Trump, Republicans went from describing the economy in overwhelmingly positive terms to using overwhelmingly negative ones.

In other words, Republicans react much more strongly to a president from the opposite party than Democrats do. That disproportionately affects the national mood during this Democratic administration.

The news media often presents a negative view of events, possibly making people feel worse about the state of the world.

Rising inflation got a lot of regular, and widely viewed, news coverage. Better economic news, including drops in inflation and low unemployment, has received less attention. Many Americans have heard the bad news but not the good.

One does not have to wander deep into social media to find negative commentary on the economy. Memes about the woes of capitalism and anger over high prices are common. Younger Americans tend to get most of their news from social media, and they also have worse views about the economy by some metrics.

(The Times looked at the grim view of the economy that is common on TikTok.)

Maybe the rift between the state of the economy and Americans’ perceptions is less of a mystery than it seems, and the paradox will soon end. People just need more time. After years of uncertainty driven by a pandemic and then inflation, many Americans might want to make sure that things are truly turning around before they buy into any potentially false hopes.

One fact supporting this conclusion is that consumer sentiment has started to improve after more than a year of cooling inflation, as Jeanna wrote yesterday. As the challenges that made Americans pessimistic ease, attitudes about the economy could relax as well. Their views could even change in time for the presidential election.

  • Alphabet, Amazon, Apple and… seven tech stocks are driving the market.

  • Stocks don’t represent the overall economy, but their surge is probably improving Americans’ economic mood, Paul Krugman writes about the “vibecession” in Times Opinion.

  • A top cancer center affiliated with Harvard is seeking to retract or correct dozens of studies after an outside scientist discovered faulty data.

  • Twice as many U.S. adults have gotten a flu shot this season as have gotten the latest Covid booster, STAT reports.

  • Elon Musk continued to push back against accusations of antisemitism with a visit to Auschwitz, after which he called himself “aspirationally Jewish.”

  • Dexter Scott King, son of the Martin Luther King Jr. and longtime leader of the King Center for Nonviolent Social Change, died at 62.

Boeing shifted away from engineering excellence in favor of cost-cutting and its planes’ safety has suffered, Bill Saporito argues.

“No one should be left in agony because of false beliefs,” Maia Szalavitz writes in an essay explaining why people with past addictions can safely use opioids to treat pain.

Here’s a column by Jamelle Bouie on Ron DeSantis.

Teen Tiny Memoirs: The Times asked students to tell stories from their lives in 100 words or less. Out of thousands of submissions, these are our editors’ favorites.

Lives Lived: Norman Jewison could direct romantic comedies (“Moonstruck”) and musicals (“Fiddler on the Roof”). But he was best known for films that addressed social issues, most notably the Sidney Poitier drama “In the Heat of the Night.” He died at 97.

N.B.A.: The 76ers star Joel Embiid scored a franchise-record 70 points as his team beat San Antonio. But the Timberwolves lost to the Hornets despite a franchise-record 62 points from Karl-Anthony Towns.

N.F.L.: The San Francisco 49ers are unsure whether their star wide receiver Deebo Samuel will be able to play in the N.F.C. championship this weekend after injuring his shoulder.

American tastes: Restaurant menus can be a time capsule of food culture. Last year, Times writers brought back more than 100 menus from their meals across the country to get a sense of the latest trends. They found that yuzu was inescapable; that caviar was popping up everywhere (even in a quesadilla); and that menus themselves have gotten smaller and brighter.

See the year in menus.

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