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Paul Krugman’s Right About the Economy. The Polls Are Wrong.

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One of the most uncomfortable arguments to make in America is that the people are wrong. It’s especially uncomfortable when the subject is something you experience in a more comfortable, privileged way than most people. And so when liberal economic elites insist the economy, which opinion polls consistently find the public considers terrible, is actually very good, it makes liberal economic elites come off badly.

Paul Krugman is one of those dreaded liberal elitists who believes the economy is actually good. So (at a much lower level of confidence and frequency) am I. We have developed a number of explanations for why people believe an economy that The Wall Street Journal recently called “the envy of the world” is so awful.

The most generous of these accounts is that people consider higher wages something they earned and higher inflation something that happened to them. But all the explanations involve conceding some level of basic irrationality on the part of the public. And the attempts to make sense of public assessments of the economy seem deeply unconvincing.

Biden’s low economic ratings are “not hard to grasp,” argues Robert Kuttner in the left-wing American Prospect, “None of the recent improvements have altered the basic situation of most Americans, in which reliable careers are scarce, college requires the burden of debt, health coverage is more expensive and less reliable, and housing is unaffordable.” The solution, Kuttner argues, is for Biden to implement “radical” economic reforms along the lines of those promised by Bernie Sanders in 2016.

Kuttner’s hypothesis fails to explain why Americans were thrilled by economic conditions as recently as 2019, when the same basic features of the economy remained in place. Indeed, it fails to explain why Americans have ever considered the economy to be healthy, given that Bernie-style social democracy has, famously, never been tried in the United States.

Michael Powell, writing in the Atlantic, flays liberals in general, and Paul Krugman in particular, along lines similar to Kuttner’s:

The modern Democratic Party, and liberalism itself, is to a substantial extent a bastion of college-educated, upper-middle-class professionals, people for whom Biden-era inflation is unpleasant but rarely calamitous. Poor, working-class, and lower-middle-class people experience a different reality. They carry the searing memories of the Great Recession and its foreclosure crisis, when millions of American households lost their home. A large number of these Americans worked in person during the dolorous early days of the pandemic, and saw its toll up close. And since 2019, they’ve weathered 20 percent inflation and now rising interest rates—which means they’ve lost more than a fifth of their purchasing power. Tell these Americans that the economy is humming, that median wage growth has nudged ahead of the core inflation rate, and that everything’s grand, and you’re likely to see a roll of the eyes.

Powell makes several claims here, all of them deeply flawed.

He argues the working class considers the economy terrible because of “searing memories” of the Great Recession and then the pandemic. Yet, like Kuttner, he fails to explain why these same voters considered Trump’s economy to be so splendid. Memories of the Great Recession and its aftermath were fresher under Trump than they are now. And the worst and deadliest period of the pandemic actually occurred under Trump, which makes the current nostalgia for Trump’s economy all the more incompatible with Powell’s hypothesis.

It is true, as he writes, that prices have risen 20 percent since 2019. But that doesn’t mean people have “lost more than a fifth of their purchasing power.” Purchasing power is a function of the relationship between what things cost and how much you have to spend. Wages have been rising faster than inflation since last year, and the average American is better off than before the pandemic.

What’s more, contrary to Powell’s argument that the working class has suffered under Biden’s inflationary economy, wages have grown much faster at the bottom than at the top.

Powell reasons that public opinion is essentially dispositive. If the people feel the economy is bad, then it’s bad, regardless of what economists like Krugman tell them. “Working- and middle-class Americans,” he argues, “are wiser to trust their feelings and checking accounts than to rely on liberal economists.”

The trouble here is that polling finds plenty of public optimism about the economy in contexts other than asking people how the American economy is doing. An Axios poll earlier this year found 63 percent of Americans rate their personal financial situation as “good,” a figure in line with historical levels. That is also reflected in people’s spending practices — they are behaving as though the economy were booming, even if they don’t think it is.

A Wall Street Journal poll last month of seven swing states found a gigantic disconnect between the public’s view of economic conditions in their own state and in the country as a whole. Fifty-four percent of respondents believe economic conditions in their state are excellent or good. But only 36 percent of respondents said the same of economic conditions in the country.

Now this was a poll of seven swing states, not the entire country. I suppose you could imagine the swing states are in dramatically better economic shape than the rest of America, though if that were true, you’d expect Biden to be polling a little better.

What this suggests to me is that public assessment of the economy reflects something other than an objective assessment of economic conditions. People think they are doing well and their state is doing well but the country is doing horribly. Must we assume some deep wisdom underlies these seemingly irreconcilable beliefs? Sometimes people, even with the benefit of close personal experience, just believe things that aren’t true.

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