Public dissatisfaction not new

RALEIGH — In this highly charged political year, it’s important to keep in mind that most North Carolinians, like most Americans, have been dissatisfied most of the time during the administrations of both Democratic President Barack Obama and his Republican predecessor, George W. Bush.

That doesn’t mean that there haven’t been times in which Obama and Bush had net approval ratings rather than net disapproval. Indeed, we’re living in one of those times right now. After being “underwater” on this measure for quite a while, Obama’s approval ratings began moving into positive territory several months ago as it became clear that either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump would likely succeed him. That made some previous skeptics see Obama in a more favorable light.

Approval ratings for chief executives — presidents or governors — do not necessarily signal public satisfaction with the way things are. In the latest Civitas Institute poll of likely North Carolina voters, for example, only 34 percent said North Carolina was headed in the right direction, while 57 percent said things have gotten off on the wrong track. In the same poll, however, 50 percent approved of the job Gov. Pat McCrory was doing, with 43 percent disapproving.

A recent Pew Research Center poll revealed a similar dynamic at the national level. While President Obama had 50 percent approval to 44 percent disapproval, most Americans said the country was on the wrong track and that economic conditions were only fair or poor.

Here’s the Pew question I think really gets to the heart of the matter: Do you think your family’s income is going up faster than the cost of living, staying about even with the cost of living, or falling behind the cost of living?

Fifty-three percent said they were falling behind, with 36 percent saying “about even.”

It wouldn’t surprise you to learn that these proportions were much higher for those of low-to-moderate incomes. But it might indeed surprise you to learn that these findings haven’t changed dramatically since 2000. Most people believe their disposable — after-tax — incomes have not been growing enough to increase their real living standards. They’ve believed this even during periods when official statistics suggest otherwise — when incomes for most households really did rise faster than taxes and reported inflation.

One likely reason is that while the real prices of some goods and services, such as entertainment and computing devices, have dropped dramatically over the past couple of decades, the prices of big-ticket items such as college education, medical care, and child care have soared. These services are closely bound up with our expectations about the future — about our ability to support ourselves in old age, and the ability of our children and grandchildren to prosper.

But is the problem here one of price or of cost? The distinction is important. What consumers pay for a service need not cover its full cost. Liberals often propose reducing the price of education, health care, and child care to households by having a third party — employers or the government — pick up more of the tab.

Conservatives prefer to reduce the actual cost of these services over time. Partly blaming a lack of competition and innovation, they propose reducing regulatory barriers that keep new providers from entering these markets. If government subsidy is required, they also propose allowing households more latitude to choose the providers and services that best meet their needs.

Consider child care. George Mason University’s Mercatus Center recently published a study documenting that regulations capping child-staff ratios and group sizes for child care centers significantly increase the cost of their services but are not consistently related to the real quality of those services. Such rules can even become counterproductive if higher prices lead families to choose alternative arrangements, such as day care homes run by non-relatives, that tend to provide lower-quality care.

Perhaps you disagree with that idea. But it is an example of the many policy debates we need to have, regardless of who gets elected to high offices this fall.

John Hood is chairman of the John Locke Foundation.

John Hood is chairman of the John Locke Foundation.

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