TALKIN' BOUT MY...

TALKIN' BOUT MY GENERATION. Talking about the strange perceptual gap wherein the middle class feels insecure even while it wields relative affluence, Scott Winship writes:

it's the I'm OK-They're Not Syndrome at work. In The Optimism Gap, journalist David Whitman described a phenomenon common to a number of areas of public opinion. People will often perceive society to be in trouble or declining on some indicator while at the same time perceiving themselves to be doing quite well. So the educational system is a mess, but my kids' school is just fine. Politicians are corrupt, except for mine. Family values are a thing of the past, except in my family where they thrive.

In other words, Americans accurately perceive their own situation, but misperceive the economy at large. And we, as political pundits, watchers, and observers latch onto their judgments about the country as a whole, not about their personal situations.

To some degree, that's correct. Or at least, was. But I'd argue that the actual data shows deterioration among individual's perceptions of their own situation. When The Washington Post coined the term "mortgage moms," they did so based on numbers showing a solid majority of voters believed their incomes were not keeping pace with inflation. And so much as I talk about the uninsured and quality of care, the real driver of political concerns over health insurance is that individuals fear their ability to afford future illness. So while Scott has a point about the �I'm OK, You're Not� strain in American life, I'm not sure it explains the paradox he's examining. A better -- and simpler -- explanation is that the middle class, while relatively affluent, isn't gaining ground that rapidly, and sees various key costs (e.g., fuel, energy, rent, insurance) easily outpacing their incomes. In other words, they're right.

--Ezra Klein

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