Regular readers of the Kruse Kronicle will remember that back in February I did my annual series on American Social Indicators. In the concluding post I noted how over the past quarter century, the great majority of quality of life indicators have improved significantly. Yet more than almost any other time in recent history people seem pessimistic and anxious. I titled the concluding post "Getting Better But Feeling Worse."
Recently, I've been reading Gregg Easterbrook's The Progress Paradox: How Life Gets Better While People Feel Worse. I've only hit the first couple of chapters but early in the book he notes exactly the same phenomenon I did. He offers a couple of good insights.
First, he attributes this problem to what he calls "The Revolution of Satisfied Expectations." He notes that:
I suspect that we also have been in a transition from a focus on material goods to what economists call positional goods. Most goods have material and positional qualities. My house is a material good. It gives me a place to live. However, the exact same house is worth far less almost anywhere in the Midwest than the identical house would be on a Malibu beach property. You and I may both have cars that do equally well getting us to places but yours is a Lexus and mine is a Geo Metro. Thus, while we are talking about two similar material items, one has qualities that make it more rare and exclusive, and therefore of status position.
A study in the New York Times shows that there is now little difference in the material goods consumed by the bottom and middle quintile. The middle quintile only consumes about 30% more. The significant differences tend be in housing, transportation, and food where the middle quintile buys goods with greater positional value. The top quintile only consumes about double what the bottom quintile does with the biggest variance seeming to be positional, not material. Competition for material goods is not a zero-sum game while positional goods have more of that quality. With Easterbrook's "Revolution of Satisfied Expectations" I wonder if the only way many can see possible improvement is in positional goods, thus giving then dissatisfaction with there material affluence.
Easterbrook's second insight is "Collapse Anxiety." There is fear of economic collapse because people are anxious that either the present economic prosperity can't be sustained or that personal freedoms in a democratic society can't endure. The relaltively rapid move into higher levels of prosperity seems precarious and disorienting to us. Many secretly fear that it is all an aberrartion.
I think Easterbrook is on to something with these insights.