My colleagues David Brooks and Paul Krugman have engaged in a running debate for much of their time as Times Opinion columnists, and I often find their exchanges illuminating.
Their latest argument revolves around how strong the American economy really is. The Economist magazine sparked the debate with a recent cover story titled “Riding high: The lessons from America’s astonishing economic record.” Today, I’ll use the disagreement to pose two different questions — one that may challenge conservative readers of this newsletter and the other that may challenge liberal readers.
G.D.P. or life expectancy?
In David’s recent column, he endorsed The Economist’s sunny picture: “You can invent fables about how America is in economic decline. You can rail against ‘neoliberalism.’ But the American economy doesn’t care. It just keeps rolling on.”
The standard measure of a nation’s economic performance is per capita gross domestic product — the value of the economy’s output divided by the size of the population. Over the past three decades, the U.S. has widened its lead over Europe and Japan:
Today, the U.S. still accounts for almost 25 percent of global output, nearly the same share as in 1990, even as China’s share has soared.
The U.S. remains a uniquely dynamic society in some important ways, home to top universities, a thriving venture-capital industry, a stable government (most of the time) and a population comfortable with risk taking. Apple, Google, Tesla and OpenAI are all American companies. So are Moderna and Pfizer, key developers of the mRNA Covid vaccines.
When it comes to economic innovation and productive might, no country can match the U.S.
As Paul notes, however, G.D.P. does not measure a typical person’s standard of living. Per capita G.D.P. is an average, and an average can be distorted by outliers. The U.S. is highly unequal, which means that the wealthy take home a larger share of output than in other countries.
Since 2000, per capita G.D.P. in the U.S. has risen 27 percent, but median household income has risen only 7 percent. Income for the top 0.1 percent of earners, by contrast, has jumped 41 percent.
When you look at broad measures of well-being, the U.S. stops looking so good. We have the lowest life expectancy of any high-income country, a relatively recent development. Americans have uniquely poor access to health insurance and paid parental leave. Surveys show that Americans are deeply dissatisfied with the country’s direction.
CNBC, describing the results of a survey it has been conducting since 2006, reported the following last week: “A record 69 percent of the public holds negative views about the economy both now and in the future, the highest percentage in the survey’s 17-year history.”
Paul put it this way in his most recent newsletter:
… it’s always important to bear in mind that G.D.P., at best, tells us how much a society can afford. It doesn’t tell us whether the money is well spent; high G.D.P. need not translate into a good quality of life. Individuals can be rich but miserable; so can countries.
And there are good reasons to believe that America is using its economic growth badly.
Conservatives sometimes respond to this data by trying to separate the economy from the rest of society. The former, they argue, is performing magnificently. The latter is beset by fraying social bonds and other ills.
But I think it’s a mistake to imagine that the economy is somehow distinct from living standards. The unequal American economy continues to churn out an impressive array of goods and services while also failing to deliver rapidly improving living standards. And polls suggest that most people aren’t fooled.
Voting with their feet
So is the solution simply more government intervention in the economy — following the model of Europe and U.S. states that are run by Democrats? Not quite. Consider these facts, from another recent column of David’s:
Between 2010 and 2020, the fastest-growing states were mostly red — places like Texas, Georgia, Florida, Tennessee and South Carolina. During the pandemic, that trend accelerated, and once again, most of the big population-gaining states are governed by Republicans.
If you go back farther, you see decade after decade of migration toward the more conservative South. The Brookings Institution demographer William Frey has noted that in 1920, the Northeast and the Midwest accounted for 60 percent of America’s population. A century later, the Sun Belt accounts for 62 percent of the nation’s population. These days we are mostly a Sun Belt nation.
I found some of the reader comments on that column to be jarring. They didn’t grapple with why so many Americans, including young families and immigrants, were moving to Republican-run states. These comments instead argued that blue America was better and red America was backward. “I, for one, will never live in a red state,” read the comment that has received the most endorsements from other readers. “Never have, never will.”
Evidently, growing numbers of Americans feel differently.
Red America offers less expensive housing partly because its zoning laws are less onerous. To over-generalize only somewhat, blue America believes in NIMBYism (“not in my backyard”), while red America is more comfortable with YIMBYism. Red America also reopened its schools more quickly during Covid, and long school closures appear to have been one of the biggest policy mistakes of the pandemic.
The full picture is nuanced. The same laissez-faire, anti-regulation, low-tax instincts that make housing relatively affordable in Houston, Tampa, Fla., and Greenville, S.C., also contribute to high American inequality and stagnant quality of life — because some regulations are more conducive to human flourishing than others. The U.S. simultaneously has too much government and too little.
That combination helps explain why our economy looks so good by some measures and so bad by others.
Unemployment is low. Inflation is falling. But is a recession coming? The Times’s Ben Casselman offered a helpful overview of the current economy.
Millennials are doing better financially than you might think, Jean Twenge argued in The Atlantic.
Liberals have been hobbling government and the economy, Nicholas Bagley of the University of Michigan explained on Ezra Klein’s podcast.
THE LATEST NEWS
The U.S. evacuated its diplomats in Sudan, starting an exodus of other countries’ officials.
Chinese researchers stifled efforts to understand Covid by retracting studies and withholding data.
China’s government proposed rules that would censor A.I. chatbots.
War in Ukraine
“I cry quietly”: Watch a Ukrainian soldier describe the war’s toll.
Russian troops are forcibly relocating Ukrainian residents living in occupied areas, Ukraine said.
Many Russian government employees have fallen in line behind Putin, even as other highly educated workers have fled the country.
President Biden has opened a back door for immigrants by expanding the use of humanitarian programs.
Biden has won his party’s support despite questions about his age. He is expected to announce his re-election bid as early as tomorrow.
Republicans are trying to keep abortion rights off the ballot, after those measures passed in several states last year.
A University of Virginia alumnus attacked its diversity programs. Then the governor appointed him to its board.
Other Big Stories
The chief executive of NBCUniversal is leaving the company after an investigation into inappropriate workplace conduct.
The shooting of Ralph Yarl, a Black 16-year-old, has forced Kansas City to look at its history of racism and segregation.
A fire-breathing dragon prop at Disneyland actually caught on fire during a show.
Gail Collins and Bret Stephens discuss Biden’s likely re-election bid.
Republicans’ refusal to raise the debt ceiling tells our allies and our adversaries: America is divided and can’t be counted on, Hillary Clinton argues.
Ancient Greek cup: Did looters break it and then sell the fragments to hide that it was stolen?
Wes Anderson: TikTok users are pretending to be in one of his films, Mashable reports.
Scottish island: It is hard to get to, has zero amenities and costs $186,000, but buyers are lining up.
News quiz: Take our latest quiz and share your score (the average was 8.8).
Metropolitan Diary: A 24-hour layover lasts a lifetime.
Advice from Wirecutter: Get your broken stuff fixed, free.
Lives Lived: Bruce Haigh was an Australian diplomat who helped South Africans battle apartheid. He died at 77.
SPORTS NEWS FROM THE ATHLETIC
“Chess pieces”: The Warriors won their N.B.A. playoff Game 4 against the Kings, 126-125. This is how Draymond Green and Steph Curry plotted their win.
New sporting director: The U.S. Soccer Federation is set to hire Matt Crocker to shape the program ahead of the 2026 World Cup.
ARTS AND IDEAS
The art world at war
Before Russia invaded Ukraine, the National Gallery in London and the Pushkin Museum in Moscow had been collaborating on a blockbuster exhibition, “After Impressionism,” which would have shared masterpieces by Van Gogh, Cézanne and Matisse. Instead, the two museums recently opened their own separate versions of the show.
Museums in the West have held firm on cutting off Russian state institutions, Alex Marshall writes. Russia’s culture ministry has downplayed the isolation and turned inward, urging museums to promote “traditional Russian spiritual and moral values.”
PLAY, WATCH, EAT
What to Cook
Make this kale and walnut pasta with pantry staples.
What to Watch
The best shows and movies coming to Netflix this month.
Use a price freeze to get a deal on airfare.
Now Time to Play
The pangram from yesterday’s Spelling Bee was downloaded. Here are today’s puzzle and the Bee Buddy, which helps you find remaining words.
A bonus: During last week’s Spelling Bees, fewer players found “hiragana” than any other word — except one. What was it?
And here are today’s Mini Crossword, Wordle and Sudoku.
Thanks for spending part of your morning with The Times. See you tomorrow.
P.S. Here is The Morning’s Spring Playlist — songs that are bringing readers joy right now.
And here’s today’s front page.
“The Daily” is about Sudan.
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