I was a psychology major in college. But you do not need a degree in psychology to know that at any moment in time, a given portion of the population will have an optimistic outlook, and a given portion of the population will have a pessimistic outlook. Some people are optimistic no matter what, and some people seem to get up on the wrong side of the bed every day. Some people associate optimism with “having a heart,” and pessimism with “having a brain.” I think that most people would agree with me when I suggest that in order to successfully navigate these strange and difficult times, we need both of these qualities.
Positivity, Negativity, Reality and Rational Optimism
I have talked many times over the years about the importance of staying positive. I think of myself as a pretty darn positive guy. But being positive does not mean being unrealistic. I try to see the good in people, and the good in every situation, but I always try to be realistic. When these things are joined together, you have the blueprint for what some call “rational optimism.” Rational optimism means starting with a realistic assessment of the present moment, and then going about your business, putting one foot in front of the other, and taking informed action to overcome a challenge or reach a goal. Before we act, we have to recognize the true state of the world, which means recognizing what we can and cannot control. This isn’t always an easy thing to do, and it’s been doubly tough so far this year.
While the sensational media has a habit of attaching the word “crisis” to virtually everything it covers, the fact is we are certainly currently enduring two enormous actual crises—linked crises—one of them health related, and one of them economic. This year has been defined by these linked crises, and the likelihood of either one of them dissipating while the other rages on seems low.
So how do we take stock of where we are at, and plot a rationally optimistic path forward? I think we have to start by recognizing reality, and reality tells me that there’s a lot to be concerned about.
The first of the linked crises is a health crisis. We are living through what some in the media have referred to as a once-in-a-century global pandemic. The COVID-19 death toll in the United States, as of this writing, has climbed above 177,000 souls. That is more American lives than were lost in World War I and Vietnam combined. It’s hard to quantify the impact of those deaths, individually, on surviving family members and communities—a huge impact, in a period of months. And we haven’t even begun to understand the possible long-term ramifications for COVID-19 survivors. But some in the media look at this same data and think of these numbers in terms of statistics, and point out that, as far as global pandemics go, historically speaking, what we are experiencing in 2020 is “mild.” As far as I can tell, the reality is there is truth in both of these media narratives about COVID-19.
As for the second of the two linked crises of 2020—the economic crisis—a very strong argument could be made that the “cure” is even worse than the disease.
Measuring the Unprecedented
At the end of March, “with the US economy in the midst of its most severe collapse on record, Congress and the Trump administration came together to craft the CARES Act. The measure’s $2.3 trillion total was stunning, but crucial in preventing an even worse outcome” than the 33% drop in US GDP that occurred in the second quarter. Fed Chair Jerome Powell announced an effectively limitless expansion of the money supply. Our government took unprecedented, desperate actions to keep our economy from cratering.
As you can see in the above chart, from the 1960s through 2008, the money supply in the United States increased at a steady, somewhat measured pace. Then the 2008 financial crisis hit, and the rate of increase in money supply jumped. Our elected officials told us that once we were through the worst of the 2008 crisis, the money printing would stop. It did not. But even this turned out to be a mere precursor to what was coming.
With the emergence of COVID-19 this year, every pretense of restraint was abandoned. All told, it is estimated that “the Federal Reserve and federal government pumped about $5 trillion into the US economy” during the second quarter. During the same second quarter, the entire US economy produced nominal GDP of only $4.85 trillion. In the history of our nation, never before has our government’s fiscal and monetary stimulus been greater than the economic product of our country. Think about that for a second.
It really is hard to put these numbers into context. In the span of a few months, our government increased the rate at which it printed money equal to the entire increase over the 50 years from 1950 to 2000! In fact, our government has spent more on COVID-19 stimulus packages than it spends each year on defense and Social Security combined. Put another way, in March and April 2020 alone, we spent more attempting to get out of this crisis than we did in all of World War II. This is simply astonishing.
The Worst of Both
It is an understatement to say that the linked dual crises—the pandemic and the subsequent economic fallout—have changed our society. The economic crisis has ruined innumerable small businesses and cost millions of workers their jobs. Record numbers of people are unemployed, and a very large percentage of people who still have jobs are earning less than they were before the pandemic. So it should come as no surprise that “tens of millions of Americans are standing on the edge of a financial cliff.” At least 27% of American adults “missed their July rent or mortgage payment. Of those who rent, 34% expressed little to no confidence in their ability” to pay their next month’s rent. In responding to a new survey of US credit card users, almost “80% of credit card holders say they’re worried they won’t be able to continue making even the minimum payments on their debt.” That is worrying especially in light of a recent CNBC report that confirmed what conventional wisdom already made obvious—that the pandemic is, unsurprisingly, pushing credit card users to take on more debt. All of this data on the economic front adds up to a difficult reality—a reality we can’t overlook.
The health crisis and the economic crisis reinforce one another synergistically. The more people are hurt, the more they feel left behind, the angrier they get. Tens of millions of Americans today are both completely fed up with social distancing and at least mildly afraid of venturing out in public. How did we get here?
Dr. Siddhartha Mukherjee, arguably the closest thing we have in the 21st century (in medicine) to what Carl Sagan was in the 20th century (for science), recently made hay with some of his remarks on the pandemic. He is a self-described rational optimist. Though he is perhaps the world’s leading expert on cancer, he worked in virology and epidemiology at the start of his career; as a doctor at one of the largest hospitals in Manhattan, he had a front row seat to the worst that the pandemic has to offer. In his view, mistakes were made—some in good faith, some not—at every level.
Our system of separate federal and state governments, he observed, something that makes our country great, also sets us up for difficulties in situations like this. The federal government turned over almost all of the responsibility for managing the pandemic to the states, and individual states, in turn, were managed by governors who had full authority to make independent choices they thought were in the best interest of their state. This led to sometimes wildly different ideas for how to respond, and inconsistent outcomes.
States decided which metrics to use, and even how to calculate those metrics, in the absence of overarching federal guidance. He pointed out that all of the literature on respiratory viruses concludes that social distancing and wearing masks dramatically reduces viral load and reduces rates of viral transmission. But the Surgeon General of the United States and officials at the CDC and WHO offered very mixed messages on this point at the outset of the pandemic. As a result, mask requirements varied from state to state and even county to county, and in many places where masks were required, people refused to wear them.
But perhaps our single biggest mistake, Mukherjee argued, was engaging in a “quasi-lockdown.” Why were we locking down businesses at an almost immeasurably high economic cost, while people were still out freely wandering the streets? During a pandemic you want to keep businesses open and functioning as long as possible, while obviously following safety procedures and protecting employees. And at the same time, it is crucial that every citizen possible stay in their home, and get tested, and participate in contact tracing. In other words, maximize utility and functionality of businesses to retain economic health, while simultaneously maximizing the physical health of the citizenry. He pointed out that all too often in our country politicians and our media frame things in “either—or” terms. In this case the answer was not “either” or “or,” but BOTH.
This quasi-lockdown delivered the worst of both worlds because it hurt businesses and led to an unnecessarily dire economic situation, while it also failed to prevent the spread of the virus in our population. Nothing about this was, or is, easy. But we live in the greatest nation in the history of the world. It is not unreasonable to hope for better, or to expect that we learn from these mistakes and grow as we move forward. I’m sure we will.
The Gap Between Experience and Perception
So how do we get back to plotting a rationally optimistic path forward?
We live in an era of widespread negativity. In my lifetime, politics has never been so toxic and divisive. Why? Well, for starters, the largest media outlets in our country—the cable “news” stations, Facebook, and Twitter—all of them run on anger. Those outlets figured out long ago that the stickiest emotion of all was rage—the angrier you are, the longer you will stick around to be a good consumer of more ads. The people who code the algorithms in Silicon Valley learned long ago that rage is more profitable than love. So, understandably, most news coverage is negative. Most editorial columns are negative. Most campaign rhetoric is negative. Most political rhetoric writ large is designed not to inspire but to inflame. This is the world we live in.
BUT we also live in a world where most trends affecting the quality of our lives are actually positive. Human life spans have never been longer. Standards of living have never been higher. Educational attainment has never been greater. Medical care has never been more effective. Violent crime—even when taking into consideration recent outbreaks—is in a long-term cycle of decline. And, in recent months, US household income and net worth hit all-time records. There is a wide gap between our actual experience—characterized by steady, incremental improvements punctuated by occasional setback—and public perception.
Americans today are living longer, healthier, safer, richer, freer lives than ever before.
That is why it is crucial to familiarize yourself with empirical data from credible sources. A favorite of mine is HumanProgress.org.
On behalf of our entire team, I hope that you and all of your loved ones are well.
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 Why Rational Optimism is the Key to Success and Less Stress. June 26, 2019 by Brian Clark.
 Forsyth, Randall W. “Dismal First: Uncle Sam’s Aid to US Tops Quarterly GDP.” Barron’s. August 3, 2020.
 Andy Snyder, Manward Press and The Oxford Insight. August 9, 2020.
 Little, Justice Clarke. “Stimulus Failure Today Means More Stimulus Tomorrow (The Stock Market Knows This).” TradeSmith. August 11, 2020.
 “As the World’s Leading Medical Power, How Did COVID-19 Ravage America?” Siddhartha Mukherjee. Making Sense Podcast. August 13, 2020.