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More Emotions, Fewer Statistics
Politicians are unable to connect with most Americans because they don’t experience economic anxiety on a regular basis.
The federal government publishes a wondrous array of economic statistics on everything from manufacturing and construction starts to international trade and foreign investment to residential sales and retail purchases. The business and financial worlds pump out reams of fascinating tables and charts highlighting trends in income, spending, energy consumption, commodities, and global trade flows. Individual companies present their own rigorous data on employment, sales, investments, and market share. All this information helps businesses make better decisions about where to invest their money, how many people to hire, and how to take advantage of emerging market trends and watch out for new threats on the horizon.
But to average Americans, few if any of these economic indicators matter much in their daily lives. Economic statistics are the domain of the well-to-do and economically secure.
For the bulk of Americans, only two questions really count: “Will I have a job next month and can I pay my bills today?” If you want to understand why the public mood is so sour on the economy—despite America’s relatively strong overall economy post-pandemic—answers to these two questions provide an explanation.
Americans may not have advanced statistical knowledge, but they aren’t dumb about the economy. At least one-third of Americans are experiencing the painful pinch of 40-year high inflation and rising interest rates to combat it. Now they are hearing talk about a coming recession that may lead to job losses and reduced income. Understandably, people are nervous—for themselves, for their families, for their friends. Middle-class life in America is not very stable. It’s massively expensive for individuals and families to stay afloat. Personal assets are not that deep and personal debt remains quite high for many people. Only those with relatively high incomes can handle rising living costs without serious discomfort and expect to have some money left over for savings, a new venture, or something fun.
“Will I have a job next month? Don’t really know. Hope so. But it’s out of my control. Can I pay my bills today? No. Barely. Maybe, if I cut way back.”
Economic anxiety is the predominant emotion in American life today. But the government has no real understanding of its dimensions and how it affects larger economic activity and decisions.
Public officials need a better way to assess these sentiments in the day-to-day running of the government and its economic policy. To start, political leaders should drop the speeches and press releases based on monthly economic statistics and empathize a little more with people’s genuine fears and desires about the economy as experienced by actual workers in different parts of the country. No, this doesn’t mean another White House gathering of “regular Americans” (i.e: people handpicked by activists) backing up another boring speech on its economic plans.
To be serious about it, the government should create formal mechanisms for more sustained input and policy feedback from actual Americans experiencing the economy in unique ways. Beyond trends suggested by statistics, this type of personal input would provide important insights to help make policies work better. New structures for citizen input could help answer tough questions such as:
Are government infrastructure investments really producing concrete improvements at the local level? If not, how do we get them up and running?
How are energy prices affecting personal and family behaviors? What can we do to reduce these costs?
Do people like the retail options and services in their area? Can they afford basic living standards on fixed or volatile incomes? What can you get for your money in different parts of America?
Can people easily access federal support efforts, aid, and loan opportunities? If not, where are the choke points? How do we make these policies accessible to everyone who is eligible?
Are local areas doing enough to keep and attract young people and new workers? If not, what specific steps would help improve the economies in underdeveloped cities, towns, and rural areas?
What do small business owners need to help their enterprises grow and keep people employed? How can federal, state, and municipal governments clear out regulations that may be blocking small businesses from expanding?
Are big employers, such as hospitals, universities, or corporate entities, well connected to local workers, labor unions, or other nonprofit groups? Are people getting the training and skills they need to get good jobs? If not, what would help to better link employers with available workers, and make sure these workers are prepared for new jobs?
Consumer confidence and other surveys partially illuminate the emotional churns that drive the personal-level economy. To add to our policy making knowledge, perhaps the federal government should create a new U.S. Bureau of Economic Advisors—comprised of a rotating cross-section of working Americans and small business owners from all regions of the country—to complement the great empirical work of the actual U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis (and the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics). The new BEA’s job would be to provide real context to the statistics driving elite debates about the economy. For example:
Original BEA: Our data show that personal saving rates hit a 17-year low last month.
New BEA member: That’s right, I don’t have any savings whatsoever. My bank account gets emptied every month paying for rent, food, electricity, water, health insurance, school costs, gas, car repairs, the phone bill, and the internet hookup. There’s nothing left over.
White House official (using BEA data): But our policy investments are putting people to work, cutting costs, and investing in America’s future. Surely that helps.
New BEA member: That’s great. But my friend just got fired and can’t find another job. No one I know can afford basic necessities. There are no new businesses in my area and no new investments to make our region more attractive to employers. Drug use and crime are up though.
Would any of this direct input from citizens matter for government policy making? Maybe not. But existing congressional town halls and other social media engagements designed to solicit public input have been taken over by scripted partisan attacks and propaganda rather than serving as forums for real feedback.
Instead, with a genuine board of citizen advisors to seriously assist with the nuts-and-bolts of policy making, our political leaders would be better informed about how regular Americans view the economy, and thus make better decisions to address their anxieties about jobs, wages, and living expenses.
Analyzing more emotions and fewer statistics might lead to a stronger economy—and hopefully happier, less stressed-out Americans.