Continued from page 1

Manufacturers have moved millions of jobs overseas to take advantage of cheaper labor rates and be closer to their future customers in quickly emerging markets such as China and India. That leaves fewer jobs in the U.S., and those that are available require more technical skills and education, Mr. Silvia said.

“Brain, not brawn, is required,” he said, noting that the unemployment rate for people without high school diplomas is 14.6 percent, compared with 9.7 percent for high school graduates and 4.5 percent for college graduates.

Political woes

But the harsh realities for many Americans may be just beginning, Mr. Silvia said. The federal government was an important source of largesse during the recession, providing free health care for many unemployed workers and beefed-up jobless benefits.

That source of support for millions of Americans is about to turn hostile as a result of unsustainably high public debts, he said. The unprecedented growth in dependence on government entitlement programs such as food stamps and Social Security that started during the recession has continued through the recovery, but it cannot go on indefinitely.

“The hard reality” is that “time has run out” on “40 years of political promises of outsized entitlement benefits,” he said. “Kicking the can down the road is no longer an option” for Congress and the White House.

Adding to the muddle is that Americans have never agreed about what caused the economic disaster of 2008 and 2009, when a collapse in the housing and financial markets led to a 6 percent plunge in economic output and the loss of 8 million jobs within a matter of months. Because people don’t agree about what happened, they don’t agree on what to do about it, Mr. Barnes said.

Democrats, controlling the legislative and executive branches at the time, mounted a major regulatory crackdown on the big Wall Street banks they blamed for the financial crisis, while they treated millions of defaulting homeowners mostly as victims and pushed for repeated dosages of “stimulus” spending from the government. Their efforts have helped produce only a half-speed recovery.

“Two major stimulus packages surely helped prevent things from getting even worse,” Mr. Barnes said. “But what might have happened isn’t tangible, and what has happened is bad enough to rivet peoples’ attention.”

Republicans, having taken back control of the House, are advocating a return to policies that existed before the crisis — including lighter regulation of Wall Street and other businesses and maintaining tax cuts for small businesses and upper-income taxpayers that they say will produce jobs.

“We’re nowhere near a consensus about what to do,” Mr. Barnes said.

National character

Some analysts say Americans’ unhappiness is the result of too much emphasis on the economy, money and wealth — a national obsession with materialism and getting rich quick that distinguishes the U.S. from many other countries.

Despite the enshrinement of the “pursuit of happiness” in the Constitution, “Americans are a profoundly unhappy people,” said Bruce Stokes, a senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund. He said that reflects the hard knocks of the recession and a sense that U.S. economic dominance and “exceptionalism” are over.

“The sour mood in the wake of the Great Recession reflects growing disillusionment” and a “widespread sense that the United States is in decline,” particularly with respect to ascendant China, he said.

Story Continues →