If Rip Van Winkle had fallen asleep 20 years ago and woken up in 2017, he might be stunned at how weird things seem. The U.S. has a reality TV host as president, at strange hours he tweets things like “covfefe” and the main news story is the investigation of administration collusion with the Russians. In my admittedly subjective opinion, the third weirdest story on many days is still considerably stranger than what I am used to reading. For instance, Exxon Mobil Corp.’s breaking Russia sanctions while Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was chief executive hardly merits major mention.
Much of this strangeness is downright unpleasant. Racism is more prevalent on social media, and in some quarters more acceptable. There is increasing talk that liberalism, in the broadest sense of that word, is on the way out. Hungary, Poland and Turkey are turning away from freedom, and our president has called the press “the enemy of the people,” a phrase that harks back to Vladimir Lenin.
I have some good news for you, though: namely, that most of American life has not turned nearly so sour. In particular, American business has never been more productive, more open, less racist and, yes, more normal.
Equity valuations have been at or flirting with all-time highs for years. Perhaps more important, those prices have shown remarkably little volatility. The stock market just isn’t dominating the news cycle, and that’s for the better. American business has continued to hire workers, with the unemployment rate down to 4.4 percent.
It’s hard to measure the degree of openness and racism in business, but I’ve never seen so many efforts from top businesses to be more inclusive, and to hire and promote more women and minorities. Maybe those efforts aren’t nearly enough, but big business has been an advocate for same-sex benefits and marriage rights for some time now, and those campaigns have succeeded.
A lot of this progress has yet to trickle down to the small-scale auto-parts store in your old hometown, but the overall landscape here seems pretty normal.
If you’re having trouble seeing that, keep in mind that the world of business is not nearly as transparent as are the proclamations of politics. When politics is polarized, as is the case in the U.S. today, at least some politicians will try to make headway with extreme statements or policy positions, and they will grab media attention. It’s not just the Trump administration; if you ask Republicans about the recent competition to lead the Democratic National Committee, many would say the two candidates were pretty extreme and unacceptable. Bernie Sanders calls himself a socialist.
In contrast, most successful businesses try to avoid extremism. They want you to love their products and associate the company’s brand name with positive features of dynamism or caring or effectiveness. But there’s a certain blandness to this process. The goal of most companies is to offend as few people as possible. That’s largely a social positive, even if sometimes you think the associated advertisements are insipid.
Not all of this business normalcy is good. There are plenty of business scandals, such as Volkswagen’s software rigging to cheat on emissions standards. But, sorry to say, that kind of behavior is pretty normal, too. Business misdeeds seem to be hitting the headlines at a steady but subdued pace. It’s not like 2001, when Enron and other scandals were among the biggest and most important stories of the day.
As for 2017, I have been concluding that I should raise my relative opinion of business and lower my view of government. I’m still waiting for millennials — a relatively left-leaning generation — to reach a similar position.
Sometimes we forget about companies, in part because it is the business of business that we don’t notice it too often for the wrong things. And don’t forget that most of the weird stories about Trump or politics refer to a pretty small slice of our world, further amplified by social media.
In a war between the boring and the weird, don’t be surprised if the weird commands the most notice. But the normal and the boring have enormous powers of inertia on their side, not to mention human goodwill, and they are doing better than it might at first seem. So if you think America is falling apart, give the corporate world another look.
Tyler Cowen is a professor of economics at George Mason University and writes for the blog Marginal Revolution. His books include “The Complacent Class: The Self-Defeating Quest for the American Dream.”