Using the Reagan Test Today

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“Are you better off than you were four years ago?” This is the question Ronald Reagan infamously asked in his successful 1980 campaign against Jimmy Carter. The question, and underlying message, was clear and direct: leaders and policies should be evaluated on whether they make our overall lives easier or harder. 

We are now living through an incredibly consequential time in US and global history, the outcome of which will be felt for years, if not decades to come. As we seek to evaluate the effectiveness of economic policies and decisions of our leaders, Reagan’s test is a valid one to apply: Are we better off now than we were 18 months ago? If we are using economic indicators to answer this question, for millions of Americans the answer would almost certainly be a resounding, “yes.”

Thanks to stimulus checks, unemployment insurance, and the Child Tax Credit, Americans have an average of 50% more money in their bank accounts than before the start of the pandemic. Overall wages are up, increasing by as much as 11% in some sectors. Unemployment has fallen to an astonishing 4.6%, back down to pre-pandemic levels. And, in the midst of a global pandemic, 11 million people were lifted out of poverty in 2020. All this is not to mention that President Biden just signed one of the largest investments in our infrastructure in U.S. history, which will lead to improved access to public transportation, expanding broadband to close the digital divide and provide high speed internet to every American, and repairs to crumbling roads and bridges.

So why are so many Americans pessimistic about the economy? The simple answer: pessimism sells. It is easier for the media to reflect our fears and anxieties back to us than explain why they’re based on incomplete data. Endless talk about inflation, rising gas prices and energy costs, and increases in the cost of food all paint a gloomy picture. But focusing on those indicators alone is like going on vacation to Hawaii and complaining about the long flight (and then reading headlines about how flights to Hawaii are longer than other destinations).

More Americans than ever are taking control of their professional lives in what is being called the Great Resignation. Even after unemployment benefits have been stopped in many states, workers are refusing to return to jobs with low wages and instead are launching their own businesses and structuring their work/life balances in ways that work best for them, not their employers. Employees have choices and this will continue to lead to rising wages. 

Supply chain shortages, which are being framed as the Grinch that will steal Christmas, are in fact an indication that our economy is opening back up. As we head into the season of holiday shopping, demand is on the rise. After an abrupt halt to global economic activity, production and shipping can’t be flipped back on like a switch, but they will catch up. Meanwhile, this is an excellent time to shop our values by supporting local business. Forty-five cents of every dollar spent at a small business stays in our community and turns over seven times before leaving the community. Plus, given that so many had to forfeit the holidays with friends and family last year, isn’t it really the gift of presence we’ll be cherishing most this year?

Our economy is telling a story, but it is not one of impending doom. Social change theorists talk about the value of positive deviants – or as Chip and Dan Heath call them, bright spots. As humans we’re hardwired to look for problems and get bogged down in analysis paralysis, believing that huge structural issues require equally huge solutions. Looking for bright spots defies this logic by focusing on things that are working even in the midst of challenges and seeking to replicate that success. 

Low unemployment. Lower poverty rates. Higher wages. More agency and choice in the job market. These are all bright spots. How do we get more of these results?

The policies we’ve enacted during the pandemic all share a common thread: they targeted the populations most vulnerable to the effects of the pandemic and empowered them not just to survive but thrive. They also implicitly acknowledged a fact that our market driven, consumerist culture has tried for decades to deny: we are all in this together. When we pursue economic policies that create a Darwinian competition for success, it’s the majority that loses. When we pursue policies that protect the most vulnerable, everyone benefits. 

Applying the lens of bright spots to our current economic reality does not mean we need to deny the challenges that do still exist. The racial wealth gap still means that minorities are not seeing the same rates of growth and recovery as white populations. On average the upper percentiles are seeing significantly more benefit from the positive economy than those with fewer assets. Having your carefully managed grocery bill go up unexpectedly is still a shock to the system. And, of course, economic indicators can’t measure the stress and heartache we’ve all endured or the tragic loss of life. The fullness of life is more than the economy.

But only looking at problems prevents us from seeing possible solutions. 

Faith+Finance has been hosting an online series, Building a Just + Loving Economy. In the second session, UK economist and theologian Eve Poole and Brookings’ Senior Fellow Andre Perry walked through how the economy is not an amoral law of nature, like gravity. Instead it is a tool. As such we can – and should – rightly ask whether it is a tool being used for moral or immoral ends. In the next installment, Anne Snyder, Editor-in-Chief of Comment magazine, Jennifer Bailey, Executive Director of Faith Matters Network, and Peter Block, community leadership guru, will be exploring the ways in which investing in communities and promoting the common good leads to a more resilient and healthy economy, and more importantly, to more resilient and thriving citizens. 

Addictive as it is, pessimism won’t get us anywhere. Now is the time to double down on the policies that are working and use them to reshape our approach to our economic and civic lives.