–Professor, are you better off now than you were four years ago?
–Are you kidding me?
–Yeah. Can’t you tell?
–It’s so hard to tell these days.
–Especially in a Zoom chat. How’s your beer?
–Not bad. I wish it was a draft, but you know…
–I just thought it was a funny question, are you better off now than four years ago. Who else but Trump would ask a question like that? We’re in a pandemic and a recession. I graduated from college this year and I’m delivering people’s dinners. We can’t even sit and have a beer together safely.
–You’d probably have a better job if you’d looked for work in other cities. But I suppose you’d say you’re better off being here with your girlfriend?
–So, better off in an overall sense. I saw that story about Trump. He was bragging about a Gallup poll that asked people, “Are you better off”? Fifty-six percent answered yes.
–That’s crazy. Fifty-six percent? Don’t they know how bad things are right now?
–Sure, but the recession didn’t start till this year. It’s been terrible, but bad enough to wipe out three years of steady growth?
–Like you always said in class, you could look it up. Lemme ask FRED (Federal Reserve Economic Database). I’ve got my laptop in front of me.
–You and everybody else.
–So the unemployment rate hasn’t been this high in seven years. And real GDP is at its lowest level in five years. So the COVID recession has wiped out all the gains of the last four years and then some.
–I did not know that. And yet even in the worst of times, many people prosper. In the worst year of the Great Depression, most people still had a job. And prices had fallen so much that if you had a job and your weekly pay hadn’t been cut more than 25 percent, you had more purchasing power than ever.
–I remember that from your class, too. And you said presidents don’t control the economy or the stock market.
–There’s a line in the Bible about how a sparrow cannot fall to the ground unless God wills it. A lot of people seem to think it’s the same way with the economy and the president. Presidents tend to get rewarded for a good economy and blamed for a bad one.
–Trump deflects blame like it’s his job.
–True. I wonder if some of that 56 percent might be Republicans who just think everything’s better with Trump. You know that monthly survey of consumer confidence in the economy? When Trump was elected, the consumer confidence index shot up, even though the economy hadn’t changed. What changed was how Republicans felt about it. A lot of the Republicans surveyed suddenly said the economy was great. The responses among Democrats didn’t change.
–Didn’t you say in class that it started with Ronald Reagan? Asking, “Are you better off now than you were four years ago?”
–Yeah. In his 1980 debate with Jimmy Carter. The weird thing is, everyone assumes that he was talking about people’s pocketbooks and appealing to their selfishness, but he wasn’t. Give me a second to dig up the full quote from the debate.
(Pastes in Chat window:)
“Is it easier for you to go and buy things in the stores than it was four years ago? Is there more or less unemployment in the country than there was four years ago? Is America as respected throughout the world as it was? Do you feel that our security is as safe, that we’re as strong as we were four years ago?”
–None of the above. But 56 percent still answered yes to that main question. They can’t all be saying that just to make Trump look good. He’s not expected to get anywhere near 56 percent of the vote. How are they better off?
–Well, about the half the population owns stock. The last four years have been good to us. As were the Obama years. The S&P 500 grew an average of 14.9 percent per year in each of Obama’s terms. So far it’s averaged 14.5 percent per year under Trump. Not much of a difference either way. It’s not like either of them runs Amazon.
–Can’t believe it’s still gone up so fast despite the pandemic.
–It makes more sense when you see which companies are driving it. As of a couple months ago, six big tech companies are up more than 40 percent for the year and the rest of the S&P 500 is down a bit. It’s easy to see why people staying in during the pandemic is good for companies like Netflix and Amazon.
–So you don’t think it makes any difference for the economy whether it’s Trump or Biden?
–I do think it makes a difference. Not so much for Wall Street as for Main Street. Most economists I’ve read say we won’t fully recover from the coronavirus recession until the virus itself has been brought under control. A lot of people won’t come out and partake of our service economy until they feel safe.
–That’s why we’re meeting for beers over Zoom.
–Yep. Doing our part to contain the virus. Is Trump even trying? He dismisses things like masks and social distancing that actually work. He insults Dr. Fauci and the scientists. He dismisses the virus itself.
–It seems like COVID was going to take a bite out of us somehow, but that it didn’t have to be this bad. We didn’t have to have a death rate more than five times as high as the rest of the world.
–Some people might say the numbers for some countries are not to be trusted, but I assume we can trust Canada. Our COVID death rate should not be two and a half times as high as theirs.
–You’re not worried that Trump supporters might be even more militantly against wearing masks and social distancing if Biden’s elected?
–I am. But it’ll make a world of difference to have a president who finally cares about the pandemic. And the public health. And the public, for that matter.
–I don’t know what it would mean for the economy, but it would be good for my sanity.
–I’ll drink to that.