Insecure optimism characterizes our nation’s take on the economy


The unemployment numbers in our country have been ugly for years now, and even as we are in the midst of a supposed multi-year recovery, the number of people impacted by unemployment is so large and that troubles me so much.

Nine million families in 2011 had at least one member who was unemployed during the year. That is roughly one in every eight or nine families in the United States. The year before, it was just under 10 million families that had someone who was unemployed at some time during 2010.

Unemployment is a tough and devastating thing emotionally because even when someone gets back on their feet, they still live in fear when they’re called into the boss’ office. They think history is going to repeat itself. I remember a caller who got a job after a lengthy period of unemployment and they were working for a month when they got called in by their new boss and were laid off again.

When I talk to media folks, I tell them in interviews that what we have in the country right now is “insecure optimism.” Sure, people have a little more money in their wallets overall, they’re spending more and even making the major commitment of buying cars in big numbers for the first time in a few years. Those are all signs of optimism. But it’s kind of like a duck in the water. Ducks appears to be so calm on the surface, yet underneath they’re paddling furiously. That’s what I sense out there when I talk to people.

People feel generally better about things, they’re a little more confident, but at the same time there’s a deep insecurity or anxiety underneath. And it’s completely understandable. We’ve been through the worst recession since the Great Depression in the 1930s.

While few of us lived through it, you’ve probably heard about the Great Depression from a parent or a grandparent. My mom can still relate to me what it was like to see homeless people selling apples on street corners. Those memories stuck with people for the rest of their lives.

Some of what we’ve gone through over the last few years will stick with people for the rest of their lives. Yet we are in better shape today; while we’re not in great shape, things are getting better.

Fortunately, so many dire predictions have not taken place. Just a year and a half ago, we had predictions that municipal governments — county, city and state — would financially collapse and not be able to meet their obligations, that the municipal bond market would collapse with defaults all over the place. What happened was completely the opposite, in fact. There were almost no defaults and today people are clamoring to buy muni bonds backed by various levels of state government.

So we have had a terrible, terrible time. It’s not the worst of times and it sure is a long way from the best. Unexpected events could still occur, but our recent past is not indicative of where our future is going to be.

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