Kurt Brouwer November 1st, 2007
In this column, David Brooks reviews a Pew Research Center survey on how we as Americans feel on a variety of issues [emphasis added]:
The Happiness Gap (New York Times, October 30, 2007, David Brooks)
‘Some elections are defined by the gap between the rich and the poor. Others are defined by the gap between the left and the right. But this election will be shaped by the gap within individual voters themselves — the gap between their private optimism and their public gloom.
American voters are generally happy with their own lives. Eighty-six percent of Americans say they are content with their jobs, according to the General Social Survey. Seventy-six percent of Americans say they are satisfied with their family income, according to a Pew Research Center survey. Sixty-two percent of Americans expect their personal situation to get better over the next five years, according to a Harris Poll, compared with only 7 percent who expect it to get worse…’
Let’s pause for a moment and consider what Brooks has pointed out. First, that there is a gap between Americans’ private optimism and their public anger, irritation or just plain old gloom. In other words, if you ask someone how they are doing personally, the answer is usually pretty good. But, if you ask how our government is doing, the answer is usually pretty bad. Brooks continues:
‘…Researchers from Pew found that 65 percent of Americans are satisfied over all with their own lives — one of the highest rates of personal satisfaction in the world today.
On the other hand, Americans are overwhelmingly pessimistic about their public institutions. That same Pew survey found that only 25 percent of Americans are satisfied with the state of their nation. That 40-point gap between private and public happiness is the fourth-largest gap in the world — behind only Israel, Mexico and Brazil…’
To me, this finding is not necessarily bad news. As individuals and as families, things are going pretty well, but we have a lot of work ahead of us as a nation. As a nation, we have always looked for ways to get better and dissatisfaction with our public institutions is not only warranted, but it is nothing new. I think we rightfully can expect more from our political leaders however and, it is in this arena that our disappointment shows up most clearly. President Bush’s job approval ratings have been low, yet Congress also gets low — even lower — ratings:
‘…Americans are disillusioned with the president and Congress. Eighty percent of Americans think this Congress has accomplished nothing.
Sixty-eight percent of Americans think the country is on the wrong track. Sixty-two percent think that when government runs something, it is usually inefficient and wasteful. Sixty percent think the next generation will be worse off than the current one. Americans today are more pessimistic about government’s ability to solve problems than they were in 1974 at the height of Watergate and the end of the Vietnam War…’
I don’t think there is much mystery anymore about the efficiency of most government programs and this survey bears that point out. However, it is in the next couple of paragraphs that Brooks points to a dangerous dichotomy in that we want government to do something, but we do not believe it is capable of actually doing much of anything in a responsible and efficient manner.
‘...On the one hand, they want the country’s political leaders to take bold action. On the other hand, they are extremely cynical about those leaders and are unwilling to trust them with anything that seems risky…’
Hopefully, we will all bear this in mind when we consider — and ultimately vote in — the upcoming presidential elections. We really need leaders who have a vision and an understanding of what the country needs, but more importantly of what government is capable of actually achieving. Second, we need leaders who will act on behalf of the country as a whole rather than leaders that are just focused on a partisan point of view.
However, we also have to recognize that it will not be possible to solve some of our big problems (Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid) without significant trade-offs. So, we also have to be realistic about what needs to be done and what it will cost us to solve some of these problems. It’s a tough prescription I know, but this is what we need to do if we are going to start closing the Happiness Gap.
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