As a culture, we seem to be in an apocalyptic moment. Judging from the movie trailers, it looks like the human race is basically screwed this summer in After Earth, World War Z, and This Is the End—a comedy!—while Washington (and its black president) will be besieged by cyber-terrorists in White House Down. In the real world, we’re bombarded with warnings about our debt crisis, our economic crisis, and of course our political crisis, which is to say, our government’s inability to deal with all its other crises. Republicans in particular have become perennial prophets of doom, warning that President Obama’s foreign policies will destroy our standing in the world, that Obamacare will destroy our health care system, that out-of-control spending, growth-killing taxes, and loose monetary policy will turn us into a dystopia of inflation, high interest rates and economic paralysis.
Things are OK. And while you can’t tell from following the news—the press doesn’t like to report on planes that land safely, or seemingly obvious stuff that didn’t happen yesterday—things are getting better. The apocalypse is not nigh.
We are now in the fourth year of a slow but steady recovery. The economy is adding about 200,000 jobs a month, and has added 6.8 million private-sector jobs since the end of the Great Recession. The stock market is at an all-time high, and has almost doubled since Obama took office. The housing market is rebounding. It’s true that 7.5% unemployment is way too high, but it’s better than the double-digit unemployment we had in the wake of the financial meltdown, when the apocalypse really was nigh. The government has even turned a profit on the reviled Wall Street bailouts that ended the meltdown.
Yes, the economy would be doing even better if it weren’t being dragged down by the “sequester,” $85 billion worth of haphazard spending cuts resulting from Republican demands for government austerity. Those were misguided demands after a financial crisis, the kind of demands that have turned Europe into an economic basket case. But so far, at least, fears that the sequester could scuttle the U.S. recovery have proven to be overblown. Consumer confidence just hit a six-year high.
What about the fears that inspired the sequester and the rest of the austerity push, the fears that spiraling deficits would turn us into Greece? Well, the Congressional Budget Office now estimates the deficit at $642 billion, the lowest since the crisis; it’s been cut in half since Obama took office, the fastest reduction since World War 2. We’re not Greece. The bond markets certainly don’t think so; interest rates are at historic lows. And the runaway inflation that Paul Ryan and other loose-money critics keep predicting has yet to materialize; inflation is actually below the official Federal Reserve target of just 2 percent.
In fairness, while America’s short-term deficit is shrinking fast, our long-term deficit is still a concern, because soaring health care costs have threatened the future of Medicare and Medicaid. But there’s good news there, too. According to the nonpartisan Kaiser Foundation, health care spending is now growing at the slowest rate in five decades, which is why Medicare’s trustees just upgraded the program’s budget outlook. And there is strong evidence that Obamacare’s efforts to reorient the medical system to reward providers who keep their patients healthy instead of providers who perform more services are working. For example, Obamacare imposes financial penalties on hospitals with high rates of readmissions and central-line infections; predictably, hospitals have improved their performance in both areas. The health information technology revolution—launched by Obama’s 2009 stimulus—is also bending the cost curve, dragging a pen-and-paper system into digital age.
Meanwhile, U.S. combat forces are out of Iraq, and they’ll be out of Afghanistan next year. U.S. carbon emissions are at their lowest level in two decades, and so are U.S. oil imports. By historical standards, taxes are very low and spending is very modest. General Motors and Chrysler, wards of the state four years ago, are posting their best sales numbers in years. Gays are serving openly in the military, solar installations have increased over 1,000% in four years, a cool robot is taking cool pictures of Mars, and Tesla just paid back its government loan with interest. Things are getting better, and better is better than worse.
But the headlines are all about supposed scandals—stupid IRS agents in Cincinnati, overzealous leak investigations at the Justice Department, a dopey dispute over Benghazi talking points. These are the kind of things that politicians can obsess about when there’s no crisis on the horizon; the last time the national outlook was this bright, Republicans impeached the president for sexing up an intern. It’s unfortunate, but it’s not as if the latest wannabe-scandals are distracting official Washington from any important work it might be doing. Sure, Congress ought to do something about climate change, but as long as Republicans control the House, Congress isn’t going to do anything about climate change.
I guess that qualifies as a crisis. But one of the lessons of the Obama era, along with the general advisability of DOING STUFF regardless of the political implications, is that positive change can happen in spite of a dysfunctional system. You couldn’t build a summer movie around that—”In a world where complex legislation is implemented effectively…”—but it’s still a feel-good idea, even if it seems to have limited box-office appeal.