The Good News From Gloomy Consumers

5 bits of glad tidings buried in the morose confidence numbers.

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It's getting hard to sympathize with the sad-sack American consumer. According to the latest report from the Conference Board, Americans' confidence in the economy is at one of the lowest points recorded since the board began doing the survey in 1967. And the outlook for future economic conditions is the worst number ever recorded.

That means consumers are more pessimistic now than they were in the early 1980s, say, when the unemployment rate topped 9 percent. (Today, it's 5.5 percent.) Or in the mid-1970s, when inflation hit about 11 percent. (Today: about 4 percent.) Or during other national crises such as terrorist attacks, race riots, assassinations, and the long, awful wind-down of the Vietnam War. Yep, things look a lot worse than all that, I guess.

There's no doubt that $4 gas, $4 milk, plummeting home values, and an unforgiving job market are making it tough for some Americans to get by. But this ain't the Great Depression. Call it escapism, but for now, I'm choosing to focus on some of the good news in the latest confidence report. Such as:

Fewer Americans plan to vacation this summer. Great! Maybe for once the highway traffic won't be bumper to bumper on the way to the beach. Maybe we'll pollute a bit less. Maybe we'll have fewer mass-produced thrills at Disney World and stay home and play cards with our families instead.

Fewer people plan to get on an airplane. Thank goodness. Flying is about as miserable as it can get—except it's about to get worse, with airlines cutting flights and charging extra for checked bags, to help offset soaring fuel costs. Planes are already as full as they've ever been, and now, every last passenger is trying to cram a week's worth of gear into bins meant to hold a purse or backpack. So if there are fewer fliers to feed this frenzy, why complain?

Fewer people plan to buy a car. That's painful for automakers and their employees today, no doubt. But picky car buyers are forcing the automakers to build better cars that get better mileage and maybe even run on something other than gasoline. If new-car breakthroughs come out of Detroit, it could help the fading American automakers regain a global edge they've plainly lost.

Fewer people plan to buy a home. That means prices will continue to fall, making homes more affordable. That's tough on people who bought when prices were high and now need to sell. But young couples and others who were once priced out of the market might find a home within reach, finally. And a realignment of supply and demand in the housing market is essential to the strength of the overall economy; we should grit our teeth and be glad that we're part of the way through it, at least.

A majority think business conditions are OK. True, an increasing proportion of people fear that jobs will disappear over the next six months and that incomes will fall. But 56 percent still think that business conditions are "normal"—about the same as a year ago. That suggests there's a rational core who realize the sky isn't necessarily falling and who aren't panicking yet. There will still be time for that, after all, when gas and milk hit $5.