One of the inescapable meta-narratives of the Biden era had been centrist and center-left writers 1 wondering impatiently why so many Americans think “the economy” 2 is so bad when, in fact, it’s objectively so good. Will Stancil exemplified this tendency recently when he characteristically blamed “media vibes” for distorting Biden’s “economic approval”:
I really think the best explanation [of] Biden’s low economic approval is media vibes. People do not accurately perceive real-world economic indicators around them and predictably adjust their politics. Instead they internalize narrative descriptions of the world, mostly from media.
He has this exactly backward.
In Stancil’s formulation, the supposed real thing is the “real-world economic indicators” that can’t be “accurately” perceived, whereas “narrative descriptions” are fluff—harmful and fanciful distractions (“vibes,” a word meant to silly-ify and diminish their seriousness) from that hard underlying realness of unemployment rates, wage numbers, job openings, and so on. Moreover, “economic approval” gets set aside, presumably from others types of approval (social approval? political approval?), placed above (or maybe below, depending on the spatial metaphors) them as something more fundamental, more real.
But you can’t hold GDP per capita in your hand—after all, it’s a total abstraction, a statistical average! Meanwhile, all of the following things are super-tangible and accordingly easily captured by narratives that in turn resonate with huge audiences:
- The balance in your bank account strained in particular by healthcare costs and other emergencies that are pure products of the U.S. political system. 3
- The very prominent signage (practically a form of advertising) for gas prices, which are virtually unique among consumer goods in being touted in this way. The absolute level doesn’t even matter as much as the sensation of it moving in the “wrong” 4 direction.
- Political sentiments that make you feel like you’re“losing” or “winning” depending on who’s in office, regardless of what’s happening in “the economy.”
It’s the narratives that are the real and powerful things, and the macroeconomic indicators that are fake and impotent in people’s lives. And yet all of the concerns above and any adjacent to them—essentially, anything that strays from the perceived cold hard realness of “the economy” and of the discipline that studies it, economics—are treated as, well, fake news by the Stancils of the world. To them, there’s an objective economic reality out there and people are simply failing to get it because they can’t get out of their own ways.
This viewpoint is reminiscent of two others common on the American left, and you can see contours of both in the incredulity thrown at skeptics of the current U.S. “economy”:
- First, the constant characterization of right-wing climate deniers as idiots ignoring what’s before them.
- Second, the mockery of the belief that Hell awaits anyone who doesn’t grasp what religious fundamentalists deem the “obvious” truth of the Gospels.
Are economy deniers like the clueless climate deniers in no. 1, or are they more like the clueless evangelicals and tradcaths in no. 2? In this case, I think that’s the wrong question—the right one is “why do ‘the fundamentals of our economy are strong!’ proponents sound so much like those zealots in no. 2?”
What even is “the economy”?
Harsh? Sure. But the entire “why don’t they get how awesome ‘the economy’ is?” narrative hinges on a concept as flimsy as that of a mythical deity—that of “the economy” itself.
This term, meant to denote all of the activity in an entire country, only came into vogue after the Great Depression, and its indicators—the ones in which Stancil et al. invest so much value—are quite imprecise. Even the economist Diane Coyle, who wrote a book about GDP, says that the number is more of an idea than a thing. It doesn’t denote any “natural entity,” she says. It’s also somewhat nonsensical—for example, the Sisyphean rebuilding of infrastructure after every hurricane actually boosts Florida’s GDP. It’s good for “the economy,” even!
So “the economy” is a little wonky as a concept, but it’s still fundamentally sound as a meaningful term, about which people should be getting generally similar signals? No. The problem is that by cordoning off something called “the economy,” we act as if:
- There’s something amoral, scientific, and generally objective about it.
- It’s nicely separated from the messier fields of politics, social science, philosophy, art, and so on.
- Being free of such complications, it can be clearly—and uniformly—measured, perceived, and felt.
That’s all really naive. There’s no there there with “the economy”—it isn’t something that’s easily described even by its proponents, such as Coyle above, much less readily (or uniformly!) perceived by the population at-large. People’s own experiences in spheres beyond economics—where they were born, the music they listen to, their cultural heritages, their social circles—inevitably shape what they think about economics. It’d be weird if they didn’t!
Sometimes pundits do latch onto this, although they usually stop short of realizing that fixation on “the economy” is a category mistake. Judd Legum wrote a much more nuanced take than Stancil’s on the “what’s with people thinking the good economy sucks?” phenomenon and identified partisanship as a major reason for differing perceptions:
One factor in Americans' pessimistic view of the economy is partisanship. A study published in The Review of Economics and Statistics in May 2023 concluded that “partisan bias exerts a significant influence on survey measures” of economic conditions, and this influence is “this bias is increasing substantially over time.” Specifically, “individuals who affiliate with the party that controls the White House have systematically more optimistic economic expectations than those who affiliate with the party not in control.”
Think about how bad the Trump years felt if you were on the left, despite the “good” (for the stock market, at least) “economy” (whatever that is). Guess what, that feeling was real and you weren’t simply in denial about some deeper underlying economic truth that you should’ve accepted in such a way that you could compartmentalize everything else—the world is experienced through your total overlapping value system, not just (if even at fucking all) your relationship to economic statistics.
So wondering why everyone isn’t in lockstep, joyously buying into a shared notion of a “great economy” is akin to wondering why everyone hasn’t simultaneously accepted Jesus Christ as their personal lord and savior—given social cleavages and political differences of all kinds, some of them irreconcilable, that was just never going to happen, and you sound like a disappointed and spiteful preacher thinking that it ever would.
Samuel Chambers, in his collection There’s no such thing as “the economy”: Essays on capitalist value, sums up why any meta-narrative about “the economy” that treats it as a standalone domain is mistaken (emphasis mine):
An “economic” event is never just economic, and it never happens only in or to “the economy.” …[T]he so-called “economy,” understood as a discrete object or domain, only comes into existence as a construction of the discipline of economics, after which the very idea of such a place is reified by other disciplines (who explicitly or tacitly accept the idea that “the economy” is what economics studies). Every social order is woven together by threads that are simultaneously economic, political, cultural, and so on. Just as the economic, the political, and the social do not exist in, nor can they be confined to, separate spheres, so too for “values.” There is no moral domain, separable from others. Value systems are themselves built into, developed through, and secreted out of larger social orders. If we want to understand value relations, we cannot look to a discrete object or a separate value sphere; we can only ever look at society. This lines or argument entails the very impossibility of placing “the economy” on an ethical foundation, for the straightforward reason that one of the things “the economy” does is produce and restructure value relations.
So there—stop worrying about why everyone isn’t seeing the light of the wonderful Biden economy, and think about the political and social (and philosophical and moral and so on) reasons for why that might be.
I identify as a leftist. ↩︎
I’ve put this term in quotes throughout because I think it’s flimsy, as I’ll delve into later. ↩︎
A majority of Americans live paycheck-to-paycheck. ↩︎
“Are high gas prices good?” is a conundrum for the U.S. left because while high prices discourage driving an ICE vehicle, they also create powerful backlash narratives. ↩︎