BY TERRY BIBO
Scanning headlines in 2016 could make you fearful, anxious, maybe crazy — even when you weren’t looking at the presidential race.
On Dec. 14, “Dow nears 20,000” and the Federal Reserve raised interest rates because the economy is doing so well. On Dec. 15, “New round of Cat cuts” and the company wouldn’t even say how many.
“It’s middle management now,” former Mayor Bud Grieves observed soberly. “All of a sudden their $100,000 a year job isn’t going to be there . . . I think we’re going to see a lot of people leaving the area again.”
But, in part, news is what you make it. Grieves was one of the few people to point out publicly that America faces challenges but eight years of President Obama weren’t so bad: 73 straight months of job growth, no inflation, low interest rates, stock market highs. He’s not ready to throw in the American towel as we face President Trump, either.
“Big picture,” he said. “I’m cautiously — and cautiously is underlined — optimistic.”
Drill down through headlines to facts
If you’re looking for good news, you may have to dig.
Four-time U.S. Senator, ambassador, author and academic Daniel Patrick Moynihan often is credited for observing, “You are entitled to your own opinion. But you are not entitled to your own facts.”
Fact is, he probably wasn’t the first to say so. Moynihan, who died in 2003, probably swiped that quote from Bernard Baruch, who said something similar in 1950. In any event, that’s so pre-last-year. Moynihan would have been scorned as another elitist egghead in a presidential race which never seemed to touch bottom. (Even when bottoms were touched, 25 percent of eligible voters didn’t care, but never mind.) The last election took place to the constant drumbeat of doom in the alleged worst of all possible worlds, USA 2016.
Still, the contrary Tinkerbell who believes facts matter could find evidence that not everything was going to hell. Expanding on Grieves’ point, in mid-December 2008, the Dow Jones Industrial Average hovered around 8,600 points. Last month, the Dow flirted with 20,000.
Good news wasn’t that hard to find:
In August, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. said its deposit insurance fund, which protects consumers’ bank deposits, was at $77.9 billion, the highest since the financial crash of 2008.
In September, there were reports that 2015 family incomes were up 5.2 percent over the previous year, the highest jump since such record-keeping began in 1967. And U.S. households’ net worth hit a record $89.1 trillion, including stocks held by the wealthy, but also home equity largely held by people outside the top 10 percent.
In October, discerning readers learned more Americans have checking or savings accounts. Just 7 percent did not have access to a bank account in 2015.
Put those facts in context
Fact is, the idea Americans have been unduly pessimistic is not particularly new, and it’s not just about economics as filtered through politics. In 2011, a Harvard University professor named Steven Pinker noted that violence worldwide has declined dramatically, even though people seem to fear it more than ever.
“Bearers of good news are often advised to keep their mouths shut, lest they lull people into complacency,” he said in the Wall Street Journal.
“But this prescription may be backward . . . a better understanding of what drove the numbers down can steer us toward doing things that make people better off.”
Two years ago, Fraser Nelson of the U.K.’s Daily Telegraph cited Pinker when he countered an “unduly negative view of the world” with a column about “amazing progress — in medicine, prosperity, health and even conquering violence.”
Last spring, Atlantic magazine correspondent James Fallows capped three years of reporting on communities around America by noting they ignore Washington D.C.’s gridlock in order to get things done.
“. . . even if most parts of the complex American ‘system’ work better than their counterparts in the rest of the world, our national politics works worse,” Fallows wrote. “Thus the United States has a harder time taking the steps that would make adjusting to this era less painful and more productive.”
Fallows identified 11 signs that a city will succeed. Central Illinois tags several of them, from location near a research university to unusual schools and craft breweries.
Still, fear is understandable. Grieves says change has never come faster. Many people are being left behind through no fault of their own and they are angry.
“There always will be highly-paid jobs for highly-skilled people. . . but no medium-pay for low-skilled people. That no longer exists,” he says. “Can we train people fast enough? If not, do we give people a sustenance?”
Grieves himself never entered his family’s textile business in Lacon. His path wandered downstream from a brokerage through stints as a paddlewheel boat owner, entrepreneur and now Fulton County farmer. He suspects his grandchildren will have to be flexible, as well. Resilience is the Middle American virtue which stokes his hopes for Central Illinois’ future.
“I’m not pessimistic at all,” he says. “Bad comes with good in everything. I just feel for those people who are losing their jobs. Unfortunately, they expressed it by voting for Trump.”
Even the election could be positive, he says. An alignment between Congress and the presidency could end gridlock and start progress on issues such as tax reform. He thinks that is why the market soared and that is why infrastructure may get long-needed funding, which would benefit Caterpillar. Whatever the headlines, 2017 is no time to quit fighting for your cause, which is why he speaks out.
“I don’t think we can be idle,” Grieves said. “We have to make our voices known.”