American voters are clearly angry. At least it’s clear to me—for example, as reflected in the success of the Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders campaigns (and in the evident dissatisfaction with Hillary Clinton, Congress, and Wall Street).
But it’s not clear to many economists, who cite rising average incomes, a relatively low unemployment rate, and other aggregate indicators. For them, the economic situation is improving and there’s really no reason for Americans to be angry.*
And then there are the philosophers, like Martha Nussbaum, who think anger is itself morally bad.
You can be dignified, you can protest, you can say this is outrageous, but you don’t have to do it in a way that is angry or seeks payback.
But the fact is, even with slight improvements in the overall economic situation in recent years, many Americans remain financially stressed and are angry that most of the gains that have been achieved since 2009 have been captured not by them, but by a tiny group at the top.
The financial stress underlying the anger is evident in the latest Report on the Economic Well-Being of U.S. Households in 2015 issued by the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System (pdf).
The word cloud above is a good place to start. Each cloud includes the 75 most frequently observed words in the description of individuals’ challenges, with the size of the word reflecting its frequency. Thus, for example, among low-income respondents, “bills” and “money” are the most commonly reported words, while for those in the middle, the most common words are “insurance,” “health,” “money,” and “retirement.” For those earning more than $100,000, the emphasis shifts to worries about “retirement.”
The report offers plenty of additional evidence about the financial stress experienced by many Americans. For example, just under one-third of respondents report that they are either “finding it difficult to get by” (9 percent) or are “just getting by” (22 percent) financially. This represents approximately 76 million adults who are struggling to some degree to get by.
And while individuals are 9 percentage points more likely to say that their financial well-being improved during the prior year than to say that their situation worsened, it is still the case that 46 percent of adults reveal they either could not cover an emergency expense costing $400, or would cover it by selling something or borrowing money.
That’s 46 percent! To cover a $400 expense!
So, although there’s been some improvement in recent years when looking at aggregate-level results for the U.S. population as a whole, the fact is most of the improvement has occurred at the top (especially for college-educated, white Americans). The rest of the population (black, white, Hispanic, without college degrees) continues to be financially squeezed. And it’s that difference—between improvement for a few and stress for everyone else—that means lots of Americans are angry right now. And, yes, they want payback.
The mainstream economists and politicians who say that people should not be angry, that they should be content with their lot, are wrong. So are the philosophers who argue that anger and the desire for payback are morally suspect.
As I see it, the American working-class is justifiably angry and they clearly want to see some kind of payback. The real questions are, who is standing in their way (and thus whom should they be angry at) and what kinds of fundamental changes in the economic system are necessary to improve their situation (and thus to achieve the appropriate payback)?
*To be fair, Jared Bernstein himself looks behind the aggregate numbers, which leads him to understand “why some people are unsatisfied with the economy and beyond. Growth hasn’t reached all corners by a long shot, and policymakers have too often been at best unresponsive to that reality and at worst, just plain awful.”