Optimism is on the move—with important consequences for both the hopeful and the hopeless
GlobalisationThe Economist, Editorial, December 16th 2010
“HOPE” is one of the most overused words in public life, up there with “change”. Yet it matters enormously. Politicians pay close attention to right-track/wrong-track indicators. Confidence determines whether consumers spend, and so whether companies invest. The “power of positive thinking”, as Norman Vincent Peale pointed out, is enormous.
For the past 400 years the West has enjoyed a comparative advantage over the rest of the world when it comes to optimism. Western intellectuals dreamed up the ideas of enlightenment and progress, and Western men of affairs harnessed technology to impose their will on the rest of the world. The Founding Fathers of the United States, who firmly believed that the country they created would be better than any that had come before, offered citizens not just life and liberty but also the pursuit of happiness.
Not that the West was free of appalling brutality. Indeed, the search for Utopia can bring out the worst as well as the best in mankind. But the notion that the human condition was susceptible to continual improvement sat more comfortably with Western scientific materialism than with, say, the caste system in India or serfdom in Russia.
Now hope is on the move. According to the Pew Research Centre, some 87% of Chinese, 50% of Brazilians and 45% of Indians think their country is going in the right direction, whereas 31% of Britons, 30% of Americans and 26% of the French do. Companies, meanwhile, are investing in “emerging markets” and sidelining the developed world. “Go east, young man” looks set to become the rallying cry of the 21st century.
The West’s growing pessimism is reshaping political life. Two years after Barack Obama’s hope-filled inauguration the mood in Washington is as glum as it has been since Jimmy Carter argued that America was suffering from “malaise”. The Democrats’ dream that the country was on the verge of a 1960s-style liberal renaissance foundered in the mid-terms. But the Republicans are hardly hopeful: their creed leans towards anger and resentment rather than Reaganite optimism.
Europe, meanwhile, has seen mass protests, some of them violent, on the streets of Athens, Dublin, London, Madrid, Paris and Rome. If the countries on the European Union’s periphery are down in the dumps it is hardly surprising, but there is pessimism at its more successful core too. The bestselling book in Germany is Thilo Sarrazin’s “Germany Does Away with Itself”, a jeremiad about the “fact” that less able women (particularly Muslims) are having more children than their brighter sisters. French intellectuals will soon have Jean-Pierre Chevènement’s “Is France Finished?” on their shelves alongside Eric Zemmour’s “French Melancholy”.
The immediate explanation for this asymmetry is the economic crisis, which has not just shaken Westerners’ confidence in the system that they built, but also widened the growth gap between mature and emerging economies. China and India are growing by 10% and 9%, compared with 3% for America and 2% for Europe. Many European countries’ unemployment rates are disgraceful even by their own dismal standards: 41% of young Spaniards are unemployed, for example. And the great American job machine has stalled: one in ten is unemployed and more than a million may have given up looking for work. But the change goes deeper than that—to the dreams that have propelled the West.
For most of its history America has kept its promise to give its citizens a good chance of living better than their parents. But these days, less than half of Americans think their children’s living standards will be better than theirs. Experience has made them gloomy: the income of the median worker has been more or less stagnant since the mid-1970s, and, thanks to a combination of failing schools and disappearing mid-level jobs, social mobility in America is now among the lowest in the rich world.
European dreams are different from American ones, but just as important to hopes of a peaceful and prosperous future. They come in two forms: an ever deeper European Union (banishing nationalism) and ever more generous welfare states (offering security). With the break-up of the euro a possibility, and governments sinking under the burden of unaffordable entitlements as their populations age and the number of workers contracts, those happy notions are evaporating.
In the emerging world, meanwhile, they are not arguing about pensions, but building colleges. China’s university population has quadrupled in the past two decades. UNESCO notes that the proportion of scientific researchers based in the developing world increased from 30% in 2002 to 38% in 2007. World-class companies such as India’s Infosys and China’s Huawei are beating developed-country competitors.
The rise of positive thinking in the emerging world is something to be welcomed—not least because it challenges the status quo. Nandan Nilekani of Infosys says that his company’s greatest achievement lies not in producing technology but in redefining the boundaries of the possible. If people in other countries take those ideas seriously, they will make life uncomfortable for gerontocrats in China and Arabia.
But there are dangers, too. Optimism can easily become irrational exuberance: asset prices in some emerging markets have risen too high. And there is a danger of a Western backlash. Unless developing countries start taking their responsibility for global security seriously, Americans and Europeans may begin to wonder why they are policing the world to keep markets open for others to get rich.
As for the Westerners’ gloom, it has its uses. There is a growing recognition that the old rich world cannot take its prosperity for granted—that it will be overtaken by hungrier powers if it fails to deal with its structural problems. Americans are beginning to accept that their country must become less spendthrift. Europeans are realising that they need to make their economies more agile and innovative. Both are beginning to treat this crisis as the opportunity that it is.
Nor should Westerners overdo the despair, for the emergence of new great powers will benefit them, too. True, their governments will find it harder to boss the rest of the world around; their most desirable properties will increasingly be owned by foreigners; their children will have to work harder to get good jobs in an increasingly globalised economy. But the rising number of Indians, Chinese and Brazilians who can afford to buy their products and services will help their companies prosper. The countries that have provided them with workers will increasingly provide them with customers too.
It may not feel like it in the West, but this is, in many ways, the best of times. Hundreds of millions are climbing out of poverty. The internet gives ordinary people access to information that even the most privileged scholar could not have dreamed of a few years ago. Medical advances are conquering diseases and extending lifespans. For most of human history, only a privileged few have reasonably been able to hope that the future would be better than the present. Today the masses everywhere can. That is surely reason to be optimistic.