Our National Funk
Not all is gloom out there. That's the dominant message from the most recent Pew Global Attitudes Project's poll of 47 nations. Pew found that there is rising or constantly high contentment all over the globe with one's quality of life and family income. Satisfaction tends to be highest in the United States and Canada, but not far behind are western Europe and Latin America. Even in eastern Europe, Asia, and Latin America, about one third are highly satisfied with their quality of life and income. As the Pew Global analysts point out, there is a high correlation here with economic growthand the world is producing economic growth at rates that may be the highest in history. Between 2002 and 2007 the per capita gross domestic product increased 11 percent in the United States, 6 percent in western Europe, and between 17 and 36 percent in eastern Europe, Asia, Latin America, and Africa. In that period contentment has risen roughly in tandem with the economy.
But can money buy you love? Not necessarily. Although majorities in most of the 47 countries think their economies are in good shape, majorities in most say that they are not satisfied with the way things are going in their country. It's not uncommon for people to express more negative feelings about national trends than about their personal lives, and the question invites respondents with any complaint about politics or culture to answer in the negative. And in most of the countries, opinion on the direction of the nation is more positive than it was five years ago.
Most strikingly, only 25 percent of Americans are positive about the direction of the nation, down from 41 percent in 2002. In only a handful of the 47 nations are there declines of similar magnitudeUganda, the Czech Republic, France, Canada, Italy. Obviously, one factor here is the decline in the job rating of George W. Bush and of Congress (and the response in other countries to squabbling politicians in Prague, Paris, Ottawa, and Rome). It's partly a partisan response: Almost all Democrats are negative about the nation's future. But when one considers that America has not suffered another September 11, that it has enjoyed a surging and prosperous economy, it's hard to avoid the conclusion that citizens of this most blessed country are registering a verdict that is in tension with reality.
That's my reaction as well to the finding that by a 2-to-1 margin Americans say their children will be worse off than we are. There's a similar response in Canada, Britain, and Brazil. The even more negative verdicts in western Europe and Japan can be explained as a cool assessment of the combination of low birthrates and overgenerous welfare states. But what basis do Americans have to suppose that, for the first time in history, a younger generation will be worse off than their parents? Perhaps it's just a feeling that things cannot possibly get any better. In any case, we seem to be in a pronounced national funk.
Hope abroad. We might take some comfort in some of the trends of opinion in the rest of the world. In China and India, large majorities think the next generation will be better offa vote of confidence in their surging economies, which are providing cheaper products for us and are growing as markets for American goods and services. In Latin America, most believe that people are better off with free markets. (The highest percentage was in Hugo Chàvez's socialist Venezuela!) In Africa, most express great optimism in the futurea sign that the world's most troubled continent may be at last turning around.
Perhaps most important, the Pew Global survey showed sharply reduced numbers of Muslims saying that suicide bombings are often or sometimes justified as compared with 2002. That's still the view of 70 percent in the Palestinian territories. But that percentage has declined from 74 percent to 34 percent in Lebanon, from 43 percent to 23 percent in Jordan, and from 33 percent to 9 percent in Pakistan.
We've been instructed by many sages that the rest of the world hates us and does not want to follow our example. The Pew Global numbers tell us something different. People around the world may oppose American intervention in Iraq, but they also want many of the things we do. Perhaps we should take a cue from the optimism of the developing world and appreciate what we haveand get out of our national funk.
This story appears in the August 6, 2007 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.