The pessimism bias

Glenn Beck caters to an exaggerated, nihilistic view of the future.

By Matt Barnum

Glenn Beck is like a hipster: Nobody really likes him, but everyone talks about him in an oddly fascinated, ironically disdainful way.

Why is everyone so obsessed with Beck? He’s not very smart; I don’t really like looking at him; I hate how he talks. I know many people, especially at the U of C, agree with me—and yet…. Love ’im or hate ’im—I hate ’im—like hipsters, he seems to have gotten some sort of cultural stranglehold on us.

I think part of it is his political pessimism, which, for some reason, people find appealing. It’s remarkably banal, dime-store-level pessimism—the type you can get from any senile 80-year-old man. The world ain’t like it used to be! Kids these days—they have no respect! It’s simply the world-is-going-to-hell-in-a-handbasket rhetoric. Why is that so appealing, and, even for those who are irritated by it, utterly engrossing?

I’m not really sure. More to the point, though, is whether this pessimism is well-founded.

The answer is probably not. Economist Bryan Caplan examined biases of voters, and found that one of the most pervasive is the “pessimistic bias.” Writing for Reason Magazine, Caplan explains, “As a general rule, the public believes economic conditions are not as good as they really are. It sees a world going from bad to worse; the economy faces a long list of grim challenges, leaving little room for hope. We can call this the pessimistic bias, a tendency to overestimate the severity of economic problems and underestimate the economy’s performance in the recent past, the present, and the future.” Caplan quotes David Hume—first-year Hum students cringe, but it’s a great quotation: “The humour of blaming the present, and admiring the past, is strongly rooted in human nature.”

Beck epitomizes this, asking, “Do you remember that simpler time in America? And I know—it wasn’t a perfect time…. Do you remember how that felt? Do you remember what life was like?” Beck incoherently follows this by showing the 1980 “Mean Joe Green” Super Bowl ad, in which a child offers Green a Coke. The audience is left to assume that this is what he means by a simpler time.

I don’t know how to define “simpler,” or what Beck really means by showing the commercial, but I do know that based on just about any metric you can think of, we’re better off now than we were any number of years ago, including 1980.

Economically, we’re far better off. GDP, and with it standards of living, keeps on chugging along at a remarkable clip. And the march of technology continues on unabated. At the risk of sounding like that 80-year-old man, it’s remarkable to think about what cell phones and the Internet have done.

Socially, we’re also advancing. Despite hysterical claims in the wake of Obama’s election that America is still racist, is there really any doubt that bigotry in America is continuing to decline? Meanwhile, anti-homosexuality is dying a swift, painful death—not so many years ago, the idea of same-sex marriage would have been laughable; now, even though the issue remains contentious, public attitudes are shifting in favor of gay marriage.

Even looking at more conservative metrics, Beck’s talking points don’t hold up. Divorce rates have decreased significantly and consistently since 1980; similarly, abortion rates have been dropping since 1990. (Though, I think it’s worth noting that the number of abortions is still stunningly high: over one million per year, or more than one in five pregnancies.)

The reality is that even if Beck is right, even if Obama is a racist, or socialist, or blah, blah, blah, our country will likely continue to prosper. It would be dangerous to consider societal improvement inevitable, but history has taught an important truth: Stopping the momentum of progress is a tough task, one that I doubt even President Obama is up to.

Matt Barnum is a fourth-year in the College majoring in psychology. He is a member of the Maroon Editorial Board.