Americans think economy isn’t so bad in their city but is crappy nationally and globally

Frank Newport of Gallup reports (link from Jay Livingston):

Americans become progressively less positive about economic conditions the farther away from home they look. Forty-nine percent rate economic conditions in their local area as excellent or good, but that drops to 25% when rating the U.S. economy, and to 13% when assessing the world as a whole.

This is really wack:

I can see how it might make sense for Americans to think conditions are worse in other countries, but it’s hard to see a rational reason for the Lake-Wobegon-like pattern of people thinking things are ok locally but not nationally.

Gallup highlights the partisan breakdown, which I graphed here:

Unsurprisingly (given that their party controls the presidency and one house of Congress), Democrats are more optimistic than Republicans. This is just the flip side of University of Chicago economist Casey Mulligan claiming in October 2008 that the economy is not that bad because “the current unemployment rate of 6.1 percent is not alarming.” Something happened in November of that year that dramatically changed Mulligan’s perspective on the economy!

Two things that surprised me about the partisan comparisons were, first, that the differences in views of the local and state economies were so small, and, second, that Independents were basically identical to Democrats. It is the Republicans who stand out, both in their gloomy views of the national economy and also internationally. This is consistent with David Brooks’s recent claim that Republicans believe that we are “on the cusp of the fiscal and institutional collapse of our welfare state, which threatens not only the future of government finances but also the future of American capitalism.”

I do not think this is something that Republicans felt when George W. Bush was president, but right now they do seem worried. It would be easy to criticize this as just partisanship, but a more charitable view would be that this pessimism is warranted. If what it takes to have such a view is to lose a couple of elections, so be it.

In any case, the differences between the parties are only a matter of degree. Just about all the numbers in the above graph are below 50%, and an overwhelming majority of Democrats and Independents also rate the U.S. economy as “fair” or “poor.”

Frank Newport concludes:

This local positivity bias is not uncommon in surveys, but in this context suggests that the average American is not in as dire straits economically as would be thought based on national economic confidence ratings alone. These data are in line with previous research showing that Americans rate their personal financial situations more positively than they rate the national economic situation.

This sort of survey reminds me of other results such as most Americans hating Congress but liking their congressmember, or complaining that we spend too much money on foreign aid while overestimating the share of the federal budget that goes to foreign aid by over a factor of 10, or dramatically overestimating the percentage of people in the country who are immigrants. It’s never clear how much these confusions are a product of misinterpreting the local situation and how much arises from faulty generalization to the rest of the country.

9 Responses to Americans think economy isn’t so bad in their city but is crappy nationally and globally

  1. Koby Levin, 18 June 22, 2012 at 12:00 pm #

    As long as we’re being hip, it’s important to note that this is how you spell the slang term “whack”. Or at least that’s how it’s typically spelled in those arbiters of current slang, text messages.

    • RobW June 22, 2012 at 12:50 pm #


    • RobC June 22, 2012 at 1:51 pm #

      I see it more often as “wack.” It means bad, lame. It’s ambiguous how Professor Gelman is using the word–I’m thinking he means more “wacky” than bad or lame. Perhaps he’ll weigh in.

      • Andrew Gelman June 22, 2012 at 3:08 pm #

        When I said wack, I meant wack.

  2. Marty Gilens June 22, 2012 at 2:25 pm #

    Americans’ more positive views of their local economy than of the national economy, or their tendency to like their own Representative but hate Congress could reflect some mix of misinterpreting the local situation or faulty generalization to the rest of the country, as you suggest. But it need not reflect either.

    If 25% of America’s cities are in dire financial straits but 75% are doing OK, the three-quarters of Americans who live in the OK cities might reasonably think both that the country is doing poorly (since 1 out of 4 cities struggling might be considered a very bad condition indeed) and that their own city is doing OK. Similarly, if there are many types of Congressional Representatives and every voter elects their preferred type, they would all be happy with their own Representative but unhappy with Congress (which would be dominated by other types).

    More generally, there’s no logical necessity for the average of local evaluations needs to match the average national evaluation, and divergences need not be due to biases or misperceptions (although they can be, of course).

    • Andrew Gelman June 22, 2012 at 3:06 pm #


      I agree in theory but in this case I don’t think it works out. The Gallup report also has some geographic breakdowns. It seems pretty clear that there is something going on here besides aggregation issues.

  3. MiLO June 22, 2012 at 2:54 pm #

    KRS-ONE would argue the term is spelled w-a-c-k, which is how he spelled it when he penned the classic “My Philosophy” ( He would also agree that the public’s sense of its environment is wack. One last thing, “I’ll be back, but for now just seckle!” Ha-ha!

  4. modaca41 June 23, 2012 at 12:19 pm #

    This is historically true of education. Americans think public schools are terrible but their neighborhood/city/county schools are okay.

  5. William Dunn June 25, 2012 at 11:04 am #

    People have a multiple of information sources about local conditions – less about state, less about national, even further less about world, etc. The farther they look; the more they have to use the news for their opinion.

    Here were I live, the unemployment rate has been in the typical range of the last 25 years for the last 1-2 years.