The fine line between optimism and denial

I don’t usually write about Sarah Palin — there are plenty of people who already do that for a living — but I was taken this morning by her comments honoring the 100th birthday of Ronald Reagan, who was able to lift America’s spirits by saying things were pretty good, when they really weren’t.

It’s a perfect example of how the “mathematics” of the state of the economy are heavily influenced by the “emotion” surrounding it.

Mrs. Palin says America “is on the road to ruin,” called the present course “insane,” and said the answer lies — at least partially — in more oil drilling.

After the speech, Reagan’s son said his dad and the former Alaska governor have nothing in common. Then, again, Ron Reagan and his dad didn’t have much in common either.

Still, it’s an interesting contrast in how politicians frame reality.

Let’s trot out — again — one of my favorite political ads of all time.

It is, as the title of this post suggests, a fine line between the power of optimism and denial of reality and — for sure — plenty of people in 1984 said President Reagan was spending his days in the latter. But Roosevelt did the same thing when he told us there is nothing to fear “but fear itself.” In reality, there was plenty to fear.

Reagan’s America was coming out of 16 months of recession and people were going back to work — slowly. The unemployment rate had reached 9.7 percent, and had dropped to below 8 by 1984.

Mr. Reagan’s ad said the inflation rate had dropped to “about half of what it was four years ago.” But that, too, was a twist because it doesn’t point out that half of 11% is a crushing rate of inflation. In the same period he was comparing the unemployment rate (pointing out that more people than ever had gone to work that day), inflation had actually doubled. But, he was right, it was still much lower than the 11 percent of his first year in office.

The ad said “more people are buying new homes.” That’s true now, too. But that doesn’t mean the housing industry isn’t an economic basket case.

The famous ad did not address the primary issue addressed by Mrs. Palin — debt. In the period the ad assesses, the public debt had nearly doubled. Roles were reversed back then. Democrats argued the debt would kill us (and some still argue it did). Republicans assured that “Reaganomics” would have a payoff to it.

But none of that mattered. The goal was simply to get people to believe in a particular reality. And they did. Just as they did last night when Mrs. Palin got a standing ovation.

If one is tempted to believe it’s morning in America now, it is. If one believes we’re on the road to ruin, we are.