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The Good Old Days? Many Think Today Is Even Better

Public opinion: With crime down and the economy up, polls show Americans are decidedly upbeat.

June 29, 1998|DOYLE McMANUS | WASHINGTON BUREAU CHIEF

WASHINGTON — And now for some good news.

The economy looks great. The stock market is shrugging off the Asian flu. The crime rate is down. The price of oil is at a 25-year low. Most of the world is at peace. On top of all that, summer's here.

So it should be no wonder that public opinion polls are finding Americans in an optimistic mood--more confident about the future, by some measures, than at any time in 30 years.

This spring, public opinion surveys found that about 70% of Americans think the economy is not just good but getting better. More than half believe that the nation is heading in the right direction, compared with 28% who felt that way in 1996. A stunning 66% of voters in the June 2 California primary said they thought the state was "on the right track."

Mood matters. In politics, satisfied voters have abandoned the impulse to revolt and turned "incumbent" from a curse word into a boast. "The politics of anger won't work this year," Republican pollster Frank Luntz said.

In economics, the high level of confidence--born of six years of prosperity--is fueling further prosperity. Consumer spending is growing, real estate prices have turned up and the stock market seems nearly impervious to such bumps as the financial crisis in Asia.

And prosperity and optimism may bring other benefits as well: less alcoholism, drug use and child abuse and perhaps more tolerance toward minorities, immigrants and other disadvantaged groups.

"People who are feeling no financial pressure feel a margin of generosity that they are willing to apply to others," said Tom W. Smith, one of the nation's premier attitude-watchers as director of the General Social Survey at the University of Chicago.

Not everything is coming up roses. Americans are still concerned about issues such as education and health care and public morality (although less concerned than they were a year ago). And they remain generally pessimistic, even cynical, about the ability of the federal government to get things done. But even Congress' popularity inched into the positive early this year, so there may yet be hope for the bureaucracy.

Nor is everyone feeling bullish. "Personal optimism is at a 30-year high . . . but there's a big gap between people with a college education and people without," said Andrew Kohut of the Pew Research Center for the Public and the Press. "People without a college education are much less confident about their ability to succeed in the global economy."

Moreover, economists have sifted through all the good news and characteristically found a gloomy signal for America's economic future: People are saving only about 3.5% of their income, as low as that statistic has been since the government began collecting it in 1946. But even that reflects today's optimism; Americans spend more in good times because they are confident of having still more money next year.

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The nation's current surge of affability is clearly rooted in the economy's unexpected vigor. Robust growth, vanishing inflation, rock-bottom unemployment and rising wages would make any grinch, even Federal Reserve Board Chairman Alan Greenspan, hazard a smile.

Several factors make some social scientists suspect that the current bout of good feeling is more than just a blip.

For one, it took Americans a long time to decide that they were not so unhappy after all. On matters as basic as this, people are not subject to violent mood swings.

The national economic upswing began in 1991. But Americans did not believe President Bush when he told them that good times were ahead, and they did not believe President Clinton either at first.

"Psychologically, it took until well into 1996 for people to become convinced that things were good and likely to stay good for the foreseeable future," said Karlyn Bowman, a poll-watcher at the American Enterprise Institute here.

Second, two decades of a roller-coaster economy with low or flat income growth seem to have adjusted Americans' expectations--downward. In the 1950s and 1960s, Americans came to regard boom times as their birthright. When the 1970s failed to deliver, many thought that the system had failed.

Now, by contrast, almost no one younger than 45 has ever worked in an economy this good.

"A very different psychology prevails about this expansion than in the economic expansion of the 1960s," Bowman said. "In the '60s, people expected to make continued gains. Now they just expect to hold on to what they have."

Finally, there's more good news than just the economy. Crime rates have been falling since 1991. The federal budget is running a surplus--a fiscal miracle that most Washington smarty-pants once thought impossible. The nation is not at war and seems unlikely to wander into one soon. There's no baseball strike. And for summer drivers, gasoline costs roughly 30 cents a gallon in 1960 dollars.

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