Good Reasons for both Pessimism and Optimism

optimist and pessimist

Great stuff this week from two of my favorite authors. Holman Jenkins takes a pessimistic view of the coming years:

We said it four years ago: A lost decade was coming, though not as some mechanical inevitability of the housing bust. Rather, that financial crisis put politics in charge in a way that would burden the economy’s growth for years to come.

“Lost decade” is tough stuff, but we’d be fools to avert our gaze from the possibility.

Meanwhile, Kevin Williamson has a great article on how better economic ideas can succeed if we just get over our pessimistic determinism and learn to see that we do share common moral principles with those on the other side:

Conservatives are rightly feeling a little glum after the 2012 election, but Americans are not fools, we do not want to be poor and vulnerable, and we have the resources to address even our most pressing economic concerns. In the end, good policies will win out. Consider:

Over the past 15 years a coalition of liberals and conservatives has brought in for-profit free schools in education, has sliced welfare to pay off the deficit, and has privatized large parts of the health service.

[The country’s] economy continues to grow and its pro-business coalition has remained in power since 2006.

Where? Sweden. Sweden’s reform-oriented conservatives have been able to achieve a great deal not because they are moderate — they are quite radical by Swedish standards — but in part because they took the time to really understand their rivals’ motives and, unlike unsuccessful conservatives before them, did not treat their opponents’ concerns as illegitimate.

I’m not quite that optimistic – just because the right policies do in fact align with majority values and would in fact solve our problems does not mean that they “will” win in the end. Milton Friedman predicted for years that a U.S. state would enact a universal school voucher before he died. He continued making that prediction even when he had seen the far side of 90, and was making jokes about having “outlived the actuarial tables.” He was a great economist, and like many great economists he was too optimistic that the right policy would win because it deserved to (in both the moral and political sense).

But Williamson’s optimism is a needed reminder. We need to think entrepreneurially and look for opportunities, not assume that events will continue to unfold as they have. People’s choices are not mechanistically determined by narrow calculations of self-interest or by ideological path dependence.

Williamson concludes on this very valuable note:

Republicans who are concerned about winning the loyalty of the middle class should try to understand the many legitimate reasons many middle-class voters may have had for backing Obama again, as hard as that is to understand. The despair caucus holds that everybody who voted for the Democrats in 2012 did so for a bad reason, and that the resentment-and-redistribution vote now commands a permanent majority. If I thought that were the case, I’d be learning Swedish. But I do not think that is the case.

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