The economy is growing much faster than expected. Inflation is basically nonexistent. The federal budget deficit has been slashed dramatically. The stock market is reaching all-time highs. One of our long-running wars is over, and the other is winding down. The status of the United States as the world's pre-eminent economic and military power is unchallenged.
So why is everyone so depressed?
The sour public attitude toward elected officials in general — and the Republican Party in particular — is understandable. Indeed, the wonder is that pollsters can find <i>anyone</i> beyond paid staffers who will express approval of Congress. And as for the White House, the rollout of the Affordable Care Act does not scream competence and efficiency.
But overall, whether by accident or design, things are actually going rather well. Years from now, when someday the nation is mired in another recession or bogged down in another ill-conceived war, these may be remembered as the good old days.
Last week's announcement that the U.S. economy grew at a 2.8 percent annual rate in the third quarter was stunning. It came with caveats, of course, because everything seems to come with caveats these days. Some doomsayers warned that it was the wrong kind of growth, for various arcane reasons. But even the gloomiest of analysts had to acknowledge that the figure — almost a full percentage point higher than predicted — showed the economic recovery is more robust than previously believed.
That news was followed by the October employment numbers, which were also promising: a total of 204,000 new jobs. This would have been enough to keep unemployment on its well-established downward trend — if not for the government shutdown, which furloughed enough federal workers to send the jobless rate up a notch to 7.3 percent. Let's have another round of applause for Congress.
In isolation, these numbers look pretty good. Compared to the rest of the world, they look really good. The United States doesn't have structurally high unemployment (like Europe), an addiction to overheated growth rates (like China) or mounting inflation (like major developing nations). Slow and steady may be boring, but it's better than many exciting alternatives.
The federal deficit for fiscal 2013 was just $680 billion. That sounds like a lot of money — all right, it is a lot of money — but it's an incredible 37 percent less than the deficit for fiscal 2012.
Sharply lower deficits plus faster economic growth add up to a significantly brighter long-term fiscal outlook. The nation's $17 trillion debt remains a problem to be sensibly addressed and solved. But it can no longer be represented as a crisis requiring an immediate decision to deny Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid benefits to Americans who need them.
If you listen to President Barack Obama's critics, especially his Republican adversaries on Capitol Hill, you'd think the economy was wheezing its last gasps. But investors obviously disagree, since the Dow closed Monday at a record high — and has nearly doubled since Obama took office. Put simply, money talks.
Meanwhile, the nation is — almost — at peace, with Obama having brought the troops home from Iraq and announced a withdrawal from Afghanistan by the end of 2014. The fight against widely dispersed terrorist groups continues, but that's a different kind of war. Polls show minuscule public support for a return to the days when hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops were sent halfway around the world in an attempt at reshaping nations and regions that did not want to be reshaped.