The Shaky Case for Optimism

The Shaky Case for Optimism

Rebound: Why America Will Emerge Stronger from the Financial Crisis
by Stephen J. Rose
St Martin’s Press, 2010, 288 pp.

The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050
by Joel Kotkin
Penguin Press, 2010, 320 pp.

The Next 100 Years:
A Forecast for the 21st Century

by George Friedman
Doubleday, 2009, 288 pp.

BELIEF IN a better tomorrow is a self-defining American characteristic. However many among us may be leading lives of quiet desperation, we insist that this is the land of, as Nellie Forbush, the heroine of South Pacific, put it, “cock-eyed optimists.”

Looking on the bright side has been a national asset. Leaps of faith inspired George Washington at Valley Forge, motivated immigrants and pioneers, and lured investors to the high-risk capitalism that built the country’s great industrial enterprises. The liability side of the ledger—burst real estate bubbles, the dead of Vietnam, a devastated New Orleans—blurs in the dogged determination of our leaders and the willingness of our people to “move on.” The Positive Thinking industry itself is big business, packaging the happy face as a way to get rich, find love, and cure cancer to a seemingly inexhaustible supply of customers eager to have their optimism batteries recharged.

That faith is being tested these days. In the wake of the great financial meltdown/recession, consumers are afraid to borrow, banks are afraid to lend, and business is afraid to invest. Majorities now believe that the next generation of Americans will be worse off, suspect that investing in a college education may not be worth it, and think that America’s power in the world will steadily weaken. Sweeping historical analogies between the present day United States and the decline and fall of earlier empires—Britain , Spain, Rome—that were once the subject of rarefied university seminars have seeped into the popular media. When asked about their own personal future, people are more positive. But as the foreclosures and pay cuts spread, more college graduates go back to live with their parents, and once-middle-class people line up for food stamps and sleep in their cars, the notion that the individual working American’s future can be happily disconnected from the fate of the rest of the labor force becomes more and more tenuous.

Still, a “doom and gloom” mentality does not play well in electoral politics. Happy-go-lucky Ronald Reagan demonstrated this point in 1980 by trouncing the earnest Jimmy Carter, whom the media had savaged for his public angst about the country’s energy crisis. If the government just stopped worrying about it, Reagan chuckled, the market would take care of tomorrow just fine. Once elected, he ripped out the solar panels Carter had installed at the White House and dismantled Carter’s initiatives to turn the nation toward a sustainable energy future.

Democrats g...