Going into the election last November, I noticed something extremely interesting about Stanford.
Now, it’s a well-known fact that most college campuses are liberal and anti-Trump. It’s the nature of the young demographic — no problem there. But of course, not every anti-Trump person is the same, and not every Clinton voter is the same. One thing that struck me about Stanford’s particular breed of Clinton voters is that, well, they are comparatively very, very pro-Clinton.
This bothered me quite a bit, partly for personal reasons, as I was decidedly not pro-Clinton at all. More importantly, it bothered me because it struck me as particularly odd that (at least from what I observed) Stanford’s support for Clinton was so unusually strong in comparison to her support among young people elsewhere.
I had suspicions and theories about why this was, but the answer finally hit me around the time Obama left office when one of my friends made an off-hand comment in the voice of the outgoing president:
“No big deal, all I did was fix the economy and make it boom again.”
I didn’t say it at the time, but I thought to myself at that moment:
What are you talking about?
From a purely statistical and economics standpoint, I can certainly see where that person was coming from. The stock market is hitting all time highs, economic indicators are looking good, and of course, the unemployment rate is below the mythical five percent mark, which is, by some explanation that I am not qualified to give, an indicator of full employment. On paper, this all looks very good.
But what good do all those statistics actually do?
My knowledge of economics is shaky at best, but it’s still probably more sound than that of most Americans. In a 2005 study, 58 percent of adults and almost three quarters of high school students surveyed did not understand what it means when the GDP increased (that more goods are being produced). When we here at Stanford draw weird curves on a graph and use calculus to quantify economic concepts, we must understand that we are as holed-up in the ivory tower as humanly imaginable. Most Americans do not think of the economy in such abstract terms. The economy, to most, is more a reflection of their livelihood and how they are doing financially.
And Americans are not doing well. Wages have been stagnant for a half-century, even though Americans work more and vacation less than anyone else in the developed world. Americans are below average when it comes to health, and life expectancies are actually on the decline. Younger Americans are growing up to be poorer than their parents… I could go on, but I think it is not a massive surprise that the benefits of this so-called recovery (which the Right is unfortunately correct in calling it the slowest since the Great Depression) are not getting to average Americans. For the majority of Americans, there was no recovery, period. And for many Americans, especially those in economically depressed areas far away from us “coastal elites,” there isn’t even a recovery to speak of; that would require the existence of a boom-bust cycle, whereas many of these communities have been in economic freefall for decades now.
This is not to dismiss Obama’s legacy altogether. Indeed, looking at some of the rosy economic indicators, it is plain that he has done well in many regards. Simultaneously, it’s also not a dismissal of economics as a science. It just means that while we recognize that legacy (and the economic data that illustrate it), we must also realize that the economy is by no means back on track and that most Americans have most certainly not returned to economic prosperity.
And this recognition is important because people know their finances. When we on the Left declare “recovery” or “the economy is doing well,” those declarations have implications for people who know full well that they’re not doing well — that their finances have not recovered. And when we insist that all is well and use abstract, rarified data to dismiss the economic struggles of hundreds of millions of hardworking Americans, it becomes unsurprising why animosity towards the out-of-touch “liberal elite” and dismissal of facts and data would become so rampant.
Because why wouldn’t it? When we dismiss real people and their lived experiences and struggles in favor of numbers on a piece of paper, what do we expect?
Contact Terence Zhao at zhaoy ‘at’ stanford.edu.