Imagine a place where the standard of living is ranked among the five best in the world by an accepted international rating; where quality of life ranks 13th; Gross Domestic Product is seventh; and mean disposable income is the best. During the past ten years, the imagined place would be the United States. It is certainly possible to find less favorable rankings on specific issues; but by most measures, it’s hard to argue that the U.S. fares badly against any competition.
I travel a lot and what the data confirms is supported by what I see. Things usually look good here compared to what I see everywhere else. Somehow, despite all the criticism and the dire predictions, the U.S. seems to stay near the top of any reliable measure of good places to live in the world. If the numbers and my impressions are true, it’s hard to understand why so many people have a negative view of the government. The Pew Research Center reports that only 28 percent of people in the U.S. have a positive opinion of the federal government while solid majorities, 57 percent and 63 percent respectively, view state and local government positively. I think part of the answer might be found at the movies.
It seems like every time I watch a movie the villain is usually someone associated with the government. My impressions are supported by a list of more than 100 mostly recent movies that depict the national government in an unfavorable way. I think the list could be much longer, but I don’t know that anyone has taken the time to categorize all of the candidates. By contrast, I have a hard time thinking of any recent movies where the U.S. government is shown in a positive light. State and local governments are usually ignored, other than the generally positive police and fire movies.
Hollywood is not the only place where the feds are a convenient whipping boy, of course. There are not many media pundits who get paid to say nice things about our national government, whether their political leanings are to the right or the left. Even those who are paid by government seem to take more joy in pointing out its failings than they do in discussing its successes.
During the late 1970s, I took a political science course taught by a Polish professor that focused on Eastern Europe. He proclaimed near the beginning of the course that the U.S. was in decline and was destined to be overwhelmed by the Soviet Union. The 1980s brought the prediction that Japan would soon be the world’s greatest economic power, and the 1990s saw the rise of the European Union. Today, we all know China will replace the U.S. as the world’s greatest superpower within a few years. Predicting the future is never a sure bet.
My prediction is that the success of our national government is proportional to our commitment to be informed enough to know when it is working and smart enough to fix it when it’s not. Achieving both goals takes more than a quick glance at the newspaper, watching television “news,” or settling into a good dystopian movie. Government at all levels has never been more accessible than it is today, with televised meetings and vast quantities of data available online. Perhaps we should celebrate by occasionally taking advantage of our access to both good and bad news.