The Four Years Ago Question

Heading into the Democratic National Convention, much is being made of the classic Presidential campaign question: "Are you better off than you were four years ago?"

A lot of the discussion about this misses the important point that the question is a personal one, not a group one. That particular measure is about how people feel concerning their own household circumstances, not the broad guages of the nation's welfare.

Also, it's worth bearing in mind that when people ask that question about themselves, they don't actually parse through the exact four-year mark, or the exact point where the new President took over, or the exact point where they think the new President's policies really took effect. It's a much fuzzier measure.

And all of this brings me to something I've been thinking about and talking to people about for some time. I have a hypothesis, which I'm not sure I believe, that Obama is in a good position because this recession has evolved to a point where the vast bulk of people are sufficiently removed from the damage being done by the slow recovery.

Two or three years ago, according to this line of thinking, the percentage of households suffering a loss of income at a given time was not much different from the percentage today -- the households with at least one earner currently out of work, underemployed, with reduced hours, or missing an expected raise.

But the households who felt affected at that time was considerably higher. That would include households that had suffered an income loss recently, but were back to full employment -- but still working to catch up financially. It would also include households that suspected they might likely suffer an income loss in the coming months or year, and were living cautiously because of it. It would also include a lot of households that had been forced to re-evaluate their financial positions, because of the loss of assets related to the plunging value of their home or stock holdings.

Today, according to this hypothesis, there's basically the long-term unemployed, who are screwed, and everybody else.

That's an overstatement, obviously. But,  new jobless claims have been quite low for some time, while average length of unemployment has remained historically high.

Meanwhile, household assets have at least stabilized for most people, if not partially recovered. Wages have started to creep up.

What I'm suggesting is that the majority of people in the US are now -- in their personal lives -- in sort of a new normal, which may not be as good as the old pre-catastrophe normal, but feels a whole lot better than the abnormal of 2007-2010. So, according to this hypothesis, most people who ask themselves the question will feel that they are better off than they were roughly four years ago -- as long as they're not among the totally fucked 99-week unemployed.

One more thing. In August 2008, prior to the big collapse, most ordinary people believed (correctly) that the economy was going poorly. Obama and the Democrats talked at length at their convention about it; there was a lot of feeling the pain of the middle class during the economic slump.

Republicans refused to believe it. A survey of RNC delegates showed an overwhelming (incorrect) belief that the US economy was doing just fine. McCain and the rest of the speakers didn't talk about recovery at all.

Today, we have a reversal, where Republicans at their convention were absolutely certain that the US economy is in free-fall, that we are practically Greece already, and that the country is in desperate need of a dramatic turnaround.

I'm not saying the economy is actually rosy and super-duper. I'm just not sure that most ordinary people think that it's a total disaster -- especially when they think in terms of "how am I doing compared to four years ago."

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