By now, it’s obvious that the economic crisis is evolving into something bigger and, possibly, more ominous. The aftershock of the financial collapse and Great Recession has been so severe and stubborn that it has spawned profound political and psychological spillovers. Distrust of government and pessimism about the future are growing. There’s a mounting sense that governments have lost control over events. This fosters a broader alienation from authority.
The wonder is that (so far) all this dissatisfaction has not produced a more powerful political backlash. In the United States, there is the tea party, and there are fringe movements elsewhere. But in general, mainstream political parties have retained control of government, as this week’s elections remind us. Whether this continues is an open question, because we seem caught in a vicious circle. Weak economies breed pessimism, and pessimism keeps economies weak — which strengthens the appeal of populist and fringe movements.
The latest evidence of this cycle comes in a report from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) in Paris. The report — called “How’s Life? 2013: Measuring Well-Being” — was initially inspired by the belief that affluence in most wealthy societies could be taken for granted and that countries’ success couldn’t be judged only in economic terms. So the report assembles both economic statistics (income, unemployment) and other measures (voter turnout, people’s ratings of personal satisfaction).
The results often reveal quirky differences among countries. Consider this intriguing fact about Japan. It has one of the world’s longest life expectancies, 83 years at birth. Despite that, average Japanese rate their own health as the poorest of 35 countries ranked. Conversely, Americans rank first in self-reported health even though their life expectancy, 79, trails Japan’s significantly.
But the irony of this year’s report is that the most interesting findings involve what happens when affluence no longer seems assured. Confidence in government has plunged. In 2012, only 40 percent of people in OECD countries trusted their government. In some countries, figures were lower. In 2012, it was 35 percent for the United States, down from a recent high of 50 percent in 2009. In Japan, it was 17 percent in 2012, down from 25 percent in 2009.
Hope is fading. In a poll of 39 countries, people in only nine expected their “life satisfaction” to be better in five years than it is today. Even those who have jobs feel more stressed than before the economic crisis. One survey of perceived conflicts between work and family found they increased in virtually all European countries between 2004 and 2010.
There is nothing irreversible about these trends, but whether they are reversed is another matter. The report notes that in OECD countries there are about 16 million more unemployed than there were before the economic crisis. Some wealthy countries (Germany, Sweden) escaped the worst of the downturn; most did not. People are re-evaluating what they can expect as normal and realistic. The future of the political order depends in part on how well the economic order revives.
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