As we steam through convention season, we've been hearing the question "are you better off than you were 4 years ago" almost incessantly, and frankly, it's pissing me off. Of course, we are better off than we were in late 2008 — anyone who says otherwise is suffering from an epic case of situational amnesia — but the question as posed has embedded in it two assumptions that I cannot abide:
First is the assumption that comparing two points on the "graph" of history is meaningful to making a choice between two sets of policy options. Instead, I think what's important is to compare the same point on two parallel graphs: That of what actually did happen, and that of what would have happened if we'd made different choices.
We know the choices President Obama made, and we know that Mitt Romney would have made different choices... because he's told us so. In late 2008, our economy was in freefall, and as candidate, president-elect, and then the newly inaugurated president, Barack Obama supported and/or took steps to stop the headlong slide... steps that Mitt Romney and his party have condemned.
So it's as if we were an out-of-control downhill skier, careening toward a collision with the trees, but we've regained control, skidded to a safe stop, and started laboriously sidestepping back up the hill. The right question to ask is not whether we're higher on the hill than when we lost control: Maybe we are, and maybe we aren't, but the question that matters is where would we be if we hadn't taken the steps we did? If we'd tried some different method to miss the trees.
Many of us, of course, are still hurting: We've lost a job, or a home, or a life's savings. But as a society, we are collectively better off than we were in those crazy, out-of-control days of 2008-2009... and I'm absolutely certain that we're better off than we would've been without TARP and the Recovery Act and the auto bailout and Dodd-Frank and the payroll tax holiday and the extension of unemployment benefits and... well, you get the idea.
And while we're talking about "as a society" and "collectively," let me get to the second thing that pisses me off about this question:
Why do we assume that "better off" can only be measured in financial terms, and only in terms of individual wellbeing?
I was lucky, more or less, in the financial downturn: I lost a couple years of raises, but I didn't lose my job, and my pay is higher now than in 2008; we lost essentially 3 years of appreciation in our 401k, but it's recovered, and the account balance is higher than in 2008; we lost some of the equity in our home, but we didn't lose our home, and we've never been "upside-down" in our mortgage... so you tell me whether I'm "better off" in strictly material terms.
But strictly material terms aren't all that matters to me. I'm better off than I was 4 years ago because of the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. I'm better off because more of my neighbors enjoy the access to quality healthcare my family already enjoyed. I'm better off because same-sex couples can marry in my state, and because LGBT folk can serve openly in my country's military. Hard times come and go, but whether we're better or worse off materially, financially, at any given moment, we are all better off when we're working to build a fairer, more humane, more mutually supportive society.
I'm convinced that that's what Barack Obama has been leading us to do over the last 4 years, and I'm convinced that's how he will lead us for the next 4 years. So yes, dammit, I'm better off.