History will forget this presidential campaign
With its insults, lies, rancour and racism, this has been the most depressing election cycle of my lifetime. So it is worth reminding ourselves that there is plenty of good news for the United States of 2016, and that the good news probably far outweighs the bad.
When historians look back on our era, the Hillary Clinton-Donald Trump campaign probably will be a modest footnote to broader and mostly uninterrupted positive trends. For instance, in a remarkably short time, America has gone from clunky, joke-worthy mobile phones to having most of its citizens connected to much of the world’s information, and to most of the world’s people, at a moment’s notice. That is actually one of the greatest achievements of human history, even if we are far from realising its full practical benefits.
Ours is sometimes called an age of gridlock, but the law and regulation of the internet has advanced smoothly, albeit imperfectly, to allow this all to fall into place. The rapid spread of online communications was aided by the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which laid down some basic ground rules. Since that time, the US Government has assisted with domain name registration, cable regulation, applications of intellectual property law, spectrum allotment, the placement and regulation of satellites, international protocols for the web, and the maintenance of an open internet for most of the world, among other relevant issues. For all the mistakes that were made, the product is up and running.
Pushing for China’s entry into the World Trade Organisation in 2001 made it possible to finish off iPhones efficiently in that market and then export them. And it is China that may produce the next generation of cheap smartphones to narrow the digital divide in this country.
None of those are the hot-button issues of politics or the front page, but that’s the point. We are so caught up in emotional partisan symbols that we have been distracted from seeing and articulating the progress.
A second significant story of our time has been the spread of gay rights and the institutionalisation of gay marriage. As recently as 2008, neither Clinton nor Barack Obama was willing to endorse gay marriage, but now it is the national standard.
What may be next? Driverless vehicles still have hitches, but they are in use in San Francisco and Pittsburgh, and are progressing more rapidly than had been expected. They will ease commutes, save lives and help the elderly become more mobile. There is serious talk that stem-cell technologies may extend human lives. The drone revolution may revolutionise the transport of goods and services. Software is being embedded into just about everything, and American business remains the envy of the world.
To be sure, new technologies can take decades to transform everyday lives, as was the case with electricity and the automobile. Still, our age is more likely to be remembered for these and related advances than for the 2016 campaign.
Unfortunately, it is also fair to report that not all is well in the US economy. These magnificent innovations benefit some sectors more than others, and there is still an overall productivity slowdown combined with an ageing population and lots of debt. Indicators for opioid addiction and life expectancy are showing troubling signs, and social and income mobility could be much stronger. America’s middle class has been affected by income stagnation or sometimes even contraction.
But virtually all market prices, whether equity indices, measures of volatility or the strength of the dollar, suggest that the future will be at least tolerable and possibly quite good or even spectacular. The market does not seem to think that the expected results from the November election are going to overturn these positive trends. Panicking political commentators often put a lot of trust in prediction markets for the election, but I have yet to see them explain why other asset price markets seem to be doing fine.
The US has, by the way, survived extremely ugly presidential campaigns before. In 1828, for example, a newspaper supporting John Quincy Adams called the mother of his opponent, Andrew Jackson, “a common prostitute”. Among other dreadful things. The real puzzle this year is why so much of America’s noxious discourse has become concentrated in national politics. We don’t really know the answer. Most other parts of American life, including most other political campaigns, have been business as usual. Racism in the workplace does not seem to be going up and is probably going down, although there is too much dispiriting evidence from the police of racism’s lingering power. Charity is flourishing and there are more smart TV shows and books than ever. Yet today it is easier than before to see America’s moral faults in real time on Twitter or taped by smartphones and spread through social media.
It is easier to see the decency of the American spirit, too. So while the bad can be more vivid than the good, it does not have to be more powerful and enduring.
• Tyler Cowen, a Bloomberg View columnist, is a professor of economics at George Mason University and writes for the blog Marginal Revolution.