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Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Give optimism a chance

By Dennis Byrne
Chicago Tribune

On the cusp of a new year, America has gone bipolar. Barack Obama's election has precipitated tears of joy, fresh zephyrs of hope brushing our cheeks and dreams of goodness and kindness shadowing us forever. The economy has kindled the fires of fear, unseen since the Great Depression and World War II. The popular mood is perfectly described as bipolar, a disorder characterized by abnormally elevated feelings approaching mania, paired with grinding episodes of depression. While the two extremes usually are separated by periods of normal feelings, America has been seized by the acute version, in which alternating cycles of depression and mania rapidly replace, if not overlap, one another.

Exhilaration one moment, despair the next. Gaiety in the morning, misery at night. Optimism squelched by pessimism. Is there a pill for this? If so, can someone write a prescription for 305 million of them, one for every American, so that we can get on with our lives? There's no begrudging the joy that slightly more than half of American voters are feeling after they elected their elixir for the eight years of President George W. Bush. It's easy to get swept up in the jubilation, and I'm hoping the optimism can drag us out of our wretched economic mood. As the nation is on the verge of plunging into the worst state of public indebtedness relative to the gross domestic product since World War II, even some conservatives harbor the hope that Obama will succeed.

Working against the optimism, however, is an emerging, perhaps permanent, sense of pessimistic fatalism that has gradually eroded the buoyancy and confidence that long has defined the American character. Sadly, doom and gloom have become the plan of the day. Our disposition has turned sour and skeptical, as we have become a nation consumed with bad news. We have obsessed about acid rain, the ozone hole and now global warming, the latter requiring no less than geoengineering, an elaborate human conceit that says we can control our climate on a global scale.

In the past year, we fretted about the plastic in baby bottles that could cause obesity and illness. We discovered that we can get cancer from hot dogs, that heavier rainfall can cause autism in children and that our shower curtains can poison us. These well-publicized alarms have been debunked by the Statistical Assessment Service, a non-partisan organization that closely examines bad science and media abuse of statistics. Yet, the debunking never receives as much attention as the initial alarms because, I've concluded, we'd rather be alarmed than relieved. "Don't sweat the small stuff" used to be a popular expression. Now every caution morphs into a dire warning, every forecast a prophesy of ruination, every disquiet a budding calamity. Premonitions and forewarnings greet us in every edition and newscast. Our demise awaits.

If you're as fed up as I am with all this, perhaps you'll join me in my one New Year's resolution: Look for the favorable, the upbeat, the good news. Knock off the bad-mouthing. Brush off the accusations of being Pollyannaish, naive or, worse, Republican. Exult in the prospects, understand that we can pour whatever trillions we can get our hands on into the economy, but it won't do any good unless we, ourselves, look forward with trust and confidence. Apply the same excitement and optimism you feel about the new Obama administration to the economy. This should not be a partisan thing. With Democrats entering the White House, I fear Republicans now will take every opportunity to remind us how bad things are or will be, just as Democrats did when Republicans were in office.

The constant bad-mouthing, beyond what reality requires, got us to where we are now, turning a limp economy into a poor one, threatening to turn a recession into a depression. Whatever the underlying economic fundamentals, whatever policies the new administration and Congress institute, nothing will pull us out of our slump if we continue to say, as a CNBC anchor did: "I think . . . things are worse than we think." Whatever that means.

Stop whining and act like grown-ups. The end is not near. The end is far.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Good morning Sir,

I can see you are a devotee of Sehn. Phil Gramm. He of such towering intellect, that America is a nation of whiners. What part of President Bush's approach to the regulation of the financial industries that you didn't get. Of course, there wasn't one. Let's see, Republicans have had control of the White House for 20 of the last 28 years. Control of Congress for at least 12 of the last 14 years. Since we are a nation of whiners, I am assuming your take on the rich getting richer and thepoor getting shafted is an appropriate economic approach. Thanks while I get in line for the soup kitchen. As the religious right would say, Have a Blessed Day.