Economic pundits love to watch every little wiggle in statistics that track what they think moves the economy — consumer confidence, the trade deficit, retail sales, and so on. And the financial media love to report these mostly meaningless statistics, padding them with knowing quotes from the pundits. The reporting and the quoting seem to get more intense the more meaningless the statistics are — and the more they seem to point to gloomy economic prospects.
So, it’s not surprising that there’s been no publicity whatsoever for some statistics released Monday that are truly meaningful, and not the least bit gloomy.
On Monday, Gallup released the results of a poll that measures the true horsepower of America’s economic engine: the faith within our souls that someday each one of us will get rich. The good news is that Americans are keeping the faith. According to Gallup, 31% of Americans say they expect to be rich during their lifetimes. That means to me that the American economic engine is still kicking on all cylinders.
Think for a second about what it means for 31% of Americans to believe that they will be rich someday. Look to the guy on your left . . . now the gal on your right. Chances are, at least one of you is a true believer. Chances are at least one of you is going to go out and make the American economy grow every day, with your own hands and for your own sake, backed by the power of your own hopes and dreams.
Thirty-one percent is a lot of people. After all, consider how unlikely it is to actually succeed at getting rich. When Gallup asked what people meant by “rich,” the average said an annual household income of $122,000, and a household net worth of $1 million. That’s something that only about 5% of American households really have right now — but 31% think that someday it could be them. For Americans in the 18 to 29 age group, the faith runs even deeper — 51% think they’re going to make it.
Okay, why is that more important than fourth-quarter revised GDP, industrial production, and the durable goods report? Because those numbers, and all the other numbers churned out by the statistics industry, are as ephemeral as mayflies. And most of them are even less than that — they’re mayflies seen in the rear-view mirror.
There’s only one thing that really moves the economy: the faith of the people who are, themselves, the economy — the faith that there’s a better future out there, and that they can get a piece of it by working hard and taking risks. Sure, for many people that faith won’t be rewarded: they won’t get rich. But by believing they will, they’ll stoke the engine that moves the world.
According to Gallup’s results, people still believe as much as ever. David Moore, a senior editor at Gallup, told me that today’s level of faith is virtually the same as it was each time this poll has been taken over the last 13 years. In 1996, 33% overall thought they’d get rich, and 32% thought so in 1990.
As Moore says, it’s “a certain kind of eternal optimism.” Indeed. And right now, it’s an optimism that all the duct-tape in the world can’t hold back. And it’s part of what makes me faithful that when the fog of war lifts — as it surely will in a short time — we’ll see an economy that’s ready to kick into high gear.
Today, the engine is revving.