It takes a peculiar sort of blindness to be unable to understand that having more stuff doesn’t make people happy, or at least not for very long. Studies have repeatedly found that once a basic standard of living has been attained, along with a safety buffer, more does not result in more contentment.
Of course a wee problem in America is that large swathes of the population aren’t even at that level. Nearly 12% of Americans were unable to afford a nutritious diet. Nearly half can’t pay for a $400 emergency expense (which is nothing in terms of what can go wrong with a car…but no wheels often means no work).
And even those who are over that level aren’t necessarily very secure. They might be juggling jobs or otherwise subject to changing schedules. Bringing up children is costly and stressful.
Covid has added a new level of underlying pressure. For parents, having their kids go to class might seem unduly risky for the child (and them) but they might find it too daunting to try to manage distance learning (even if that were still on) or home schooling. If they are front-line workers, they could well be expected to pick up the slack for thinned ranks for no/not enough extra pay…and could also be exposed to more-abusive-than-ever customers. If they are managers or business owners, shortages and other supply chain woes are a new source of hassle and business risk.
And that’s before getting to the elephant in the room, Covid contagion, and for those who recognize it, the danger of suffering lasting damage even with a mere mild or asymptomatic case.
Even though the Wall Street Journal focuses on the money part of the equation, it recognized that This Time Thing Are Different, and not in the usual presumed-positive way. From Why This Economic Boom Can’t Lift America’s Spirits:
Americans normally are happiest when the economy is growing rapidly….
But the record job growth followed record job losses in 2020, due to the Covid-19 pandemic and lockdowns. Inflation at 7.5% is eating up those wage gains for many Americans. And the unsettling effects of the pandemic, such as product shortages, are still playing out.
That explains why consumers say they feel as bad as they did in the financial-crisis year of 2009, a recent Gallup poll showed. For the first time, Americans who say they are “not too happy” outnumber those who say they’re “very happy,” according to a survey from the nonprofit group NORC at the University of Chicago.
Unlike the country’s last big inflation bout in the 1970s and early 1980s, when price pressure built over a decade, this time a cost-of-living runup unfolded in months…
The latest phase of the pandemic has further eroded faith in leaders and institutions, leading to feelings of frustration, aimlessness and helplessness, polling shows, even among some who are doing well in today’s economy…
“You listen to these Fed guys—Powell right now. ‘Oh, we think we’ll get inflation under control this year.’ Fine, but do you really think these food companies are going to lower prices once the supply chain gets settled?” [retiree] Mr.[Paul] Remick asked. “Do you think eggs are going to go down? These prices are here to stay.”…
While today’s inflation hasn’t hit double digits, as it did in 1974-75 and in 1979-81, with a peak of 14.6%, it is in some other respects more corrosive. It is accompanied—and, in part, caused—by shortages of goods such as computers, cars, and even soup and cereal. A July Gallup poll found that seven in 10 Americans had been unable to get a product or had faced delays in getting one.
Remember that in the past, strong economies meant labor bargaining power. If nothing else, many could quit and find similar work quickly. But now, in entire swathes of occupations, that isn’t necessarily so. Nurses on reddit describe terrible working conditions and meager pay increases, while the higher ups see fit to give themselves much bigger percentage pay rises. Teachers are also resigning to go into other fields entirely.
On the shortages front, the Journal points out that that is happening a lot in food, and is more frustrating that it ought to be because consumers become attached to particular brands and products (that is the point of differentiation!). The gaps might have a secondary “pantry is bare” downer effect. During 9/11 (recall I was in Manhattan and the city was cordoned off for four days) I found it weirdly comforting to walk into a grocery store and see everything look tidy and normal.
Another source of unhappiness is the increase in inequality, which of course the Journal did not acknowledge. As we pointed out in a 2007 post:
In fact, income inequality not only makes people unhappy but actually reduces their life expectancy, and not for the reasons you would think. The Financial Times’ Michael Prowse explains:
There are good reasons to believe that policies that promote greater economic inequality – such as budgets that slash top tax rates – cause higher rates of sickness and mortality….
In Britain, these new arguments are most closely associated with Richard Wilkinson, a professor at Nottingham University’s medical school. Wilkinson has spent much of the past two decades painstakingly assembling the evidence for a link between inequality and sickness. But researchers elsewhere, such as Ichiro Kawachi and Bruce Kennedy of the School of Public Health at Harvard University, have independently confirmed many of his claims.
Those who would deny a link between health and inequality must first grapple with the following paradox. There is a strong relationship between income and health within countries. In any nation you will find that people on high incomes tend to live longer and have fewer chronic illnesses than people on low incomes.
Yet, if you look for differences between countries, the relationship between income and health largely disintegrates. Rich Americans, for instance, are healthier on average than poor Americans, as measured by life expectancy. But, although the US is a much richer country than, say, Greece, Americans on average have a lower life expectancy than Greeks. More income, it seems, gives you a health advantage with respect to your fellow citizens, but not with respect to people living in other countries….
Once a floor standard of living is attained, people tend to be healthier when three conditions hold: they are valued and respected by others; they feel ‘in control’ in their work and home lives; and they enjoy a dense network of social contacts.
Economically unequal societies tend to do poorly in all three respects: they tend to be characterised by big status differences, by big differences in people’s sense of control and by low levels of civic participation….
Unequal societies, in other words, will remain unhealthy societies – and also unhappy societies – no matter how wealthy they become.
The Journal also reports that Americans have gotten the message that Covid is here to stay….and don’t seem cheered by that:
About three in four adults are “frustrated” and “tired” of the pandemic and believe most people will get Covid-19, according to a January poll from the Kaiser Family Foundation. More than half of adults, 56%, said they were more worried about the economy now than they had been during prior surges.
Many of the comments at the Journal were of the “It’s the inflation, stupid, what about falling real wages/real savings don’t you understand?” sort. A few were heartfelt:
When you get a raise of $200 a month and taxes, rent, rising grocery costs, and rising costs of everything else eats that up plus some it just makes you feel hopeless. Just when you thought you were getting ahead you find out you’re just treading water. It’s like your pocket got picked.
The article also largely misses the fact that most people feel less and less in control of their lives, and Covid whipsaws only made that worse. Having to schedule what your kids do. Having your company monitor you and/or have you on call pretty much all the time. Facing the tax on time of unwanted unfun shopping, like being told you should look for new Obamacare or Medicare policies every year. Having to fight with your HMO/PPO/hospital to get treatments and meds covered.
And if the affluent-leaning Journal readers are in a sour mood, imagine how the rest of America is faring.