Donald Trump could be reelected in 2020. Just look at the economy! The stock market is exploding. GDP growth is at 3%. 401k’s are looking good. Consumer spending is up and unemployment is down. On paper, the economy is strong, a fact that has historically helped an incumbent’s reelection chances. It’s also a fact that says a whole lot about America.
We as Americans love to put our faith in the economy which, in 2017, has come to mean a series of insufficiently-representative metrics used by the average voter to determine their opinion on the state of the much more complex actual economy. This truncated version of the economy is how we measure our nation’s non-military strength, and it’s supposedly all we care about come election time.
Remember? It’s the economy, stupid! That’s what they say! And if you care about anything but the economy, then man, are you stupid.
You’re stupid for caring that 80% of stock market wealth creation goes to the top 10% of investors. You’re stupid for being concerned that many new jobs are low-paying, part-time positions with no benefits. You’re stupid for wondering if today’s bull market is sustainable or if those 401k’s will fall just as quickly as they rose or if another panic is just around the corner. You’re stupid for questioning the motives of our President and America’s biggest companies or for asking why Congress would make it harder for people to sue banks that engage in fraud. You’re stupid for worrying if the average person is any more financially secure today than they were 10 years ago, or if the youngest generations will live their lives in constantly increasing debt.
It must then stand to reason that you’re also stupid for thinking it matters that, socially and culturally, America is broken. You’re stupid for mourning civil discourse and lamenting the lack of adults in government these days. You’re stupid for feeling ashamed that our president admitted to sexual assault and attacked the widow of a dead soldier. You’re stupid if you’re concerned about the poor state of the American education system or the environment. You must be extremely stupid for getting upset at the constant negativity flooding our screens and minds, or for acknowledging that overt racism and hate crime are at their highest levels in years. Only a very stupid person would consider our criminal justice system unfair and be shocked to learn that of all the prisoners in the world, 25% of them sit in American jails. And you’re definitely stupid if you’re outraged that guns and drugs kill hundreds each day, or that America is deporting sick children, or that millions of Puerto Ricans are still without power.
You’re stupid for caring about any of this when you go to vote, because “the economy” is doing well, and that’s all that matters. Right, stupid?
Wrong. In America and around the world, real life is clearly about more than just the economy. Not only does this tired political adage no longer ring true, it willfully ignores the significant role complex social welfare issues do and should play in civilized society. Issues of public health and safety, education, environmental stewardship, socio-economic justice, social mobility, multicultural harmony and overall quality of life are rarely considered outside of economic terms (if at all) yet each has a significant, qualitative impact on how we progress as a society. Unfortunately, these issues also require a deeper level of both personal reflection and sacrifice, a calculus in which most people are unwilling to consistently invest. Instead, it is far easier to glance at some economic highlights and quickly form an opinion regarding the state of our wellbeing overall.
Using the economy as a general bellwether does makes sense under capitalism. But nowhere in the rules of American capitalism does it say we should concern ourselves with the stock market to the detriment of other, more important areas of life. In fact, the Declaration of Independence states the exact opposite. Attributing our livelihood to some numbers on a ticker oversimplifies our problems and causes us to lose sight of what truly makes America great: the pursuit of happiness.
Cue the groans. But having the freedom to pursue your happiness, however you define it, is a powerful emotional component of the American Dream. And you can’t have achieve your own happiness or realize your individual dream without someone showing you compassion, tolerance, fairness or empathy along the way. That’s just how life works. These are quite literally the most positively constructive forces known to humanity. So why shouldn’t they compel government decisions on policy as much as, if not more than, economic ones? Is it really so hard to elect officials and support companies that actively work to improve the lives of all and not just the portfolios of a few? Considerations beyond the sheer accumulation of concentrated wealth must have value, or else what the hell are we doing?
Yes, economic success can contribute to a full and happy life, but listen to your inner child here- there are more important things in life. Besides, for millions today, financial security is more perception than reality. Of course we should all be able to live free and safe lives filled with passion and opportunity, but how is one supposed to live free if they’re shackled to debt, safe if their savings are subject to speculation, passionate without a constructive outlet, or optimistic without upward mobility? People weren’t meant to worry so much about the financials of life. Dreams weren’t meant to be deferred because of mortgages, tuition and debt.
But today, in America, we accept this all as normal, so long as stocks keep rising. This is wrong. We should judge our society not by the performance of our biggest companies but by how well we take care of each other. We should consider the bigger and broader picture more often. We should tread gently and act as if our presence will be felt for millennia, because it will. We should expect and demand more from our government in terms of supporting the public interest, and not just what interests the public. And yes, we should work to provide financial security for all. But life is about more than the economy and it’s time we all act accordingly.
It’s imperative now, more than ever, that we think beyond the economy when we vote because America is currently facing a number of non-economic crises that the Trump Administration is either neglecting or making worse. But the Dow is up, and this fact alone could be enough to ensure Trump’s reelection in 2020. If that’s the case, “it’s the economy, stupid” may become more prescient warning than political adage. It may even wind up as America’s epitaph.