The United States of Optimism

The late 1830s and early '40s were a bad time in Missouri and most everyplace else in the U.S. People were broke and in debt after a boom in land speculation along the routes of new canals and railroads. In the bust that followed—what became known as the Panic of 1837—banks failed or cut off credit. One Missourian, a 36-year-old storekeeper and self-educated lawyer with a sick wife (a malaria epidemic had swept the Midwest) announced on a day in 1843 that he wanted to start over in the Oregon Territory: "I am done with this country," he said. "Winters it's frost and snow to freeze a body; summers the overflow from the Old Muddy drowns half my acres. Taxes take the yield of them that's left. What say, Maw? It's God's country."

Easier said than done. Outfitting a covered wagon to hit the Oregon Trail and buying a team of oxen cost $1,500—a lot of money. Like many of his neighbors, our shopkeeper went to his creditors, and they were many. He told them he could never pay them back if he stayed in Missouri, so why didn't they lend him more money to go west, and he would pay everything back? They did. And he did. It took him almost 10 years. Others who went west, too, usually repaid their debts back home.

Yes, we have been down and out before this current economic crisis hit us. And it was optimism and hope—often irrational, always American—that got us going again.

In 1888, about 40 years after that shopkeeper paid off his debts—his name was Peter Burnett, and he became the first elected governor of California—James Bryce put it this way in his classic text, American Commonwealth:

"America excites an admiration which must be felt upon the spot to be understood. The hopefulness of her people communicates itself to one who moves among them, and makes him perceive that the graver faults of politics may be far less dangerous there than they would be in Europe. A hundred times in writing this book have I been disheartened by the facts I was stating; a hundred times has the recollection of the abounding strength and vitality of the nation chased away these tremors."

Have we changed that much since then? I doubt it. The job of historians is to figure out what happened in the past. But Americans rarely look back, and there is something to be said for that. It is almost always morning in America. Renewal is celebrated here—with each new President, for example. As Barack Obama was being inaugurated on Jan. 20, television cameras also showed the White House full of men and women packing up, stripping the West Wing of reminders of the old regime—the paintings, photographs, papers, and hard drives.

Today, polling numbers seem to back up the idea of Americans' rosier-than-thou faith in themselves and their country and its future. In December 2008, when the world was already pretty deep into recession, the Financial Times commissioned optimism-pessimism surveys in the U.S. and the major European countries. In Britain, France, Germany, Italy, and Spain, most people—up to 63%—were pessimistic about their personal economic future. In the U.S., most were still optimistic. As for the economic future of their countries, 83% of the French were pessimistic. So were more than 70% of the British, the Italians, and the Spanish. In the U.S., pessimism reached a high of only 52%.

Putting this into a more personal context, comedian Ricky Gervais, creator of British TV's The Office, discussed the differences between the British and U.S. versions of the popular series. "[The American characters] are slightly smarter, they've got better teeth, more ambition," he said in a February interview on bigthink.com. "But the big difference is that Americans are more optimistic."

Indeed. In January of this year, a Zogby poll on "the American Dream" conducted for Forbes reported that 59% of respondents said they believed in that dream because "I'm intelligent and work hard, so I should succeed." About 25% said they expected success because "I'm an optimist."

Those responses are similar to what I hear from my journalism students at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California. They listen with barely concealed boredom to the-sky-is-falling dirges from guest lecturers. The usual comment after the speaker leaves the room: "Doesn't he understand that we see change as the norm?"

My students, frankly, are not much interested in history—in accounts of Missourians who picked up and headed out for the Territories. Instead, to gauge their prospects, they look ahead. Today they realize, among other things, that they are empowered by their knowledge of technological changes that scare their elders. And they are right to feel hopeful about this. Their ability to speak the language of this technology gives them the enhanced role that kids had on the Lower East Side of Manhattan a century ago. Those kids understood and spoke English. Their immigrant parents did not.

Finally, while acknowledging its limitations as a barometer of collective sentiment, we go to the students' ultimate tool, Google (GOOG). The search machine seems to reflect some morning sun—maybe even light at the end of this tunnel: Good things happen because people believe they will.

Conduct a search for "pessimism" on U.S. sites, and up pop 1.9 million entries. Click on "optimism," and you get 11 million. "Despair" returns 11.8 million; "hope" 615 million. Is that infallible or even rational? Maybe not. But it is American.

THE CASE FOR OPTIMISM

This is the first in a series of essays that will appear in the magazine in the runup to our August Special Issue, The Case for Optimism. Other essays, a new blog, and our proprietary BusinessWeek Optimism Index are already available on businessweek.com. Please click on The Case for Optimism module on our home page.

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