Opinion | Bruce Butler: Can’t we just be happy?

Back in the mid-1990s, I had a job where I fielded a lot of calls from farmers. Farmers are likeable people, but it seems they are always struggling against nature: weather, insects, weeds, etc. It is too dry to plant. It is too wet to harvest. There is always some external force working against them.

Summit County often reminds me of farmers. There’s not enough snow, so bookings are down. That’s bad, but then there is too much snow and visitors can’t get here. Therefore, snow is good, but it is bad too. So we need just enough snow to drive bookings, but not enough snow to scare people off the roads. Good grief!

Last week, the Summit Daily News chronicled fire officials’ concern that the rain we have received — which has lowered the fire danger level — has led to accelerated plant growth that could increase the fire danger level. No matter what happens, Summit County will always have to live with some fire risk. Can’t we just be happy about the early summer rain?

Today, you can’t listen to a news report or a press conference where at least 10 current events are not labeled a “crisis” or an “existential threat” to someone or something. I am willing to bet that most people who constantly label challenges as “existential threats” have never heard of Friedrich Nietzsche nor could they define existentialism. Existentialism is a bit abstract and outside traditional mainstream philosophy. All societies face evolving cultural and civic challenges. It seems to me that the first step in addressing challenges is not to dramatically overstate and sensationalize them. 

On the other hand, maybe we, as a society, really have become somewhat irrational actors, which has turned our perspective on modern life negative. After all, you can now redefine your pronouns on a whim and be upset if people don’t instinctively follow your redefinition. District attorneys in major U.S. cities have emptied jails, declined to prosecute violent criminals and arrested citizens who have acted in self-defense. The Biden administration has pursued energy policy that has stoked inflation and made working people poorer despite rising wages. We live in upside down times indeed.

Depending upon what media you listen to, our country is either already in a recession, on the verge of a recession or this is the best economy ever. The standard definition of a recession is a decline of the gross domestic product in two consecutive quarters. Consistent with these strange times, even our recession is upside down.

Demand for goods and services does not appear to be waning significantly despite inflation. The housing market remains strong even with rising interest rates. The job market remains strong, when in more typical recessions employers reduce their workforce in order to lower operating costs due to shrinking demand.

Apparently, consumers still want to travel even though fuel prices are at record highs, air travel has become an odyssey because airlines cannot staff flights and rising food and labor costs must be passed down through the lodging and hospitality sectors. This certainly bodes well for Summit County in the near term, but Summit County tends to lag behind the national economy and it remains to be seen what happens as the national economy stagnates. What will happen as we arrive at the crossroads between consumer demand destruction, high inflation and an economy that is neither growing nor shrinking?

Of course, the economy is complicated, and how the Federal Reserve raises interest rates will have a huge impact. Other questions abound. Will people return to the workforce and raise the labor participation rate? Will companies reward employees who returned to the office rather than work from home should they have to trim workforce? There are a million immigrants who have poured into this country across the open southern border. How are they plugging into the economy?

If I knew the answer to these questions, I would be somewhere else making a lot more money.  However, I do know the situation is not as bleak as the TV talking heads and social media make it sound and we will not be happy so long as we view the world through a prism of fear, false premises and hyperbolic fervor.

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