John McCain, who is in what Macbeth called "the sear, the yellow leaf" of life, has revived an oldie from seven elections ago with a campaign commercial asserting: "We're worse off than we were four years ago." This, of course, derives from Ronald Reagan's question, addressed to the nation with devastating effect on his opponent, during Reagan's debate with President Jimmy Carter in 1980.
The nation considered the answer obvious. Reeling from oil shocks worse than today's, with 52 U.S. hostages in Tehran and with the Soviet Union rampant in Afghanistan, voters resoundingly said no. Today we know that the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan hastened the collapse of the Evil Empire, so some things that seem to make us worse off are not unmixed curses.
Imitation is the sincerest form of politics, and in 1996 President Bill Clinton, seeking reelection, urged voters to ask themselves whether they were better off than they were four years earlier. Today we know that the nation's affirmative answer reflected the beguiling beginning of what turned out to be the tech stock bubble, so some things that seem to make us better off are not unmixed blessings.
McCain recasts Reagan's question as an assertion in order to pander to the public's dyspepsia and distance himself from George Bush. Enough.
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In contemporary politics, nothing succeeds like excess, so permutations of Reagan's trope are going to recur. Therefore, it is time to consider its deficiencies, which are symptomatic of a desiccated mentality.
Unfortunately, the phrase "better off" is generally understood as a reference to your salary, your bank balance, your IRA and the like. But wait. Are you better off being four years older? That depends.
If you are young, since 2004 you might have found romance, had children, learned to fly-fish and become a Tampa Bay Rays fan. In which case you emphatically are better off, even if since 2004 there has been only a 0.6 percent increase yes, increase in the median value of single-family homes.
If you are near "the sear, the yellow leaf" of life, in the past four years your expected remaining years of life have declined. But that does not mean you cannot be better off.
Suppose in those years you read "Middlemarch," rediscovered Fred Astaire's movies, took up fly-fishing, saw Chartres and acquired grandchildren. Even if the value of your stock portfolio is down since 2004 (the Dow actually is up), are you not decidedly better off?
The late Herb Stein, one of Washington's wisest practitioners in the field of applied philosophy, a.k.a. economics, criticized the "are you better off" question" by noting that "everyone has a certain asset, which is the present value of his expected future life." But "all years are not alike." The years that come later in life can have special richness because one has learned things that enable one to appreciate each year more.
Stein noted that the question about being "better off" is thought to be about facts rather than feelings. But feelings are facts. Facts such as delight, serenity and gratitude have values not easily priced in cash.
The people asking and those answering the "better off" question seem to assume that the only facts that matter are those that can be expressed as economic statistics. Statistics are fine as far as they go, but they do not go very far in measuring life as actually lived.
We do, unfortunately, live, as Edmund Burke lamented, in an age of "economists and calculators" who are eager to reduce all things to the dust of numeracy, neglecting what Burke called "the decent drapery of life." In this supposedly rational and scientific age, the thirst for simple metrics seduces people into a preoccupation with things that lend themselves to quantification.
Self-consciously "modern" people have an urge to reduce assessments of their lives to things that can be presented in tables, charts and graphs personal and national economic statistics. This sharpens their minds by narrowing them. Such people might as well measure out their lives in coffee spoons.
In 1934, long before mankind strode jauntily into what it contentedly calls "the information age," T.S. Eliot asked:
Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?
So, are you better off than you were four years ago? That depends. On what? That, too, depends.