A favorite quote I like to recall during heated political climes comes from America’s greatest curmudgeon, the late Andy Rooney, when he observed: “It’s just amazing how long this country has been going to hell without ever having got there.”
This is an especially good sentiment to share today, as we finally finish the longest election season of our voting lives … or so it feels!
Regardless of whether you will be celebrating or bemoaning the outcome of the election once the final votes are tallied, this is a critical time to consider current events in their rightful historical context. We thought we might take a look at some randomly selected (but telling) population, GDP, earnings and dividend statistics for five observation points during the 41-year period of 1975 through 2015, namely the years ending in 5. Granted, 2016 has been a challenging year for us as well, both domestically and abroad. But look, for some perspective, to past events that alternately befell and uplifted us in each of these landmark years.
Saigon falls; President Ford escapes two assassination attempts within seventeen days. Margaret Thatcher becomes the first woman leader of Britain’s Conservative Party. Andrei Sakharov, the great hero of Soviet resistance, wins the Nobel Peace Prize. Saturday Night Live debuts, October 11. An American and a Soviet spacecraft link up in space; the event is memorialized on a beautiful ten cent U.S. postage stamp.
- Global population: 4.1 billion, fully half of whom live in extreme poverty
- U.S. population: 216 million
- U.S. real GDP: $5.49 trillion
- S&P 500 year-end close: 90.19
- Earnings: $7.71
- Dividend: $3.73
Gorbachev comes to power in the Soviet Union, and meets with President Reagan. The Internet domain name system is created. Windows 1.0 is published, and the EPA effectively banned leaded gasoline. The best song of the year is “We Are the World.” In the greatest marketing catastrophe since the Edsel, the Coca-Cola Company introduces New Coke. A first class U.S. postage stamp costs twenty-two cents.
- Global population: 4.85 billion
- U.S. population: 238 million
- U.S. real GDP: $7.71 trillion
- S&P 500 year-end close: 211.28
- Earnings: $15.68
- Dividend: $8.20
The Oklahoma City bombing is the greatest domestic terrorist atrocity in American history. O.J. Simpson’s murder trial begins, and ends ten months later in his acquittal. Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin is assassinated. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum opens in Cleveland. Jerry Garcia dies. A postage stamp costs thirty-two cents.
- Global population: 5.7 billion
- U.S. population: 266 million
- U.S. real GDP: $10.28 trillion
- S&P 500 year-end close: 615.93
- Earnings: $37.70
- Dividend: $14.17
Hurricane Katrina devastates an American land mass larger than Great Britain. Saddam Hussein goes on trial for his life. July 7 becomes London’s 9/11, as coordinated attacks on the bus and subway system claim 52 lives. Pope John Paul II dies; he will be canonized only nine years later. A postage stamp costs thirty-seven cents.
- Global population: 6.5 billion (but by the turn of the century, the rate of extreme poverty has fallen to one person in three)
- U.S. population: 296 million
- U.S. real GDP: $14.37 trillion
- S&P 500 year-end close: 1,248.29
- Earnings: $76.45
- Dividend: $22.38
A radical Islamic faction, ISIS, casts the Middle East into chaos, and carries out terrorist atrocities in Paris and elsewhere. Refugees pour into Europe. The world’s leading nations reach an accord with Iran on its nuclear development program. Yogi Berra dies. A postage stamp costs forty-nine cents.
- Global population: 7.29 billion (less than one in ten of whom live in extreme poverty)
- U.S. population: 322 million
- U.S. real GDP through 9/30/15: $16.39 trillion
- S&P 500 (as of 11/23/15): 2,086.59
- Earnings (full-year estimate): $118
- Dividend (full-year estimate): $43
This, then, is a perspective on four decades of human perseverance in the face of history’s never-ending onslaught of ups and downs:
- Global population up nearly 80%, with extreme poverty slashed from one human in two to one in ten, creating wave upon wave of new middle class consumers.
- U.S. population up by half, and gaining a new person (through net births and migration) every fourteen seconds. And still almost unimaginable room to grow: population density per square mile in this country is 85, compared with almost 300 in France, 590 in Germany, 680 in the UK … and 870 in Japan.
- Real GDP more than tripled, on only a 50% population increase – meaning real GDP per capita has soared.
- The S&P 500 rose more than twenty times, on an earnings increase in excess of fifteen times and a dividend boost approaching twelve times.
Putting the news in context suggests at least a couple of optimistic outlooks:
While not everyone is better off, there is solid evidence that there is more real wealth enjoyed by more people than ever before.
There’s also reason to believe these advances have been made possible through the proliferation of global, free market economies and societies, connected together as never before through information technology.
Yes, there are serious concerns as well. But if history is our guide, we may be best guided by a realistic, yet upbeat outlook on whatever lies ahead. As actor Will Smith said he learned in his early days as the Fresh Prince: “Never let success go to your head, and never let failures go to your heart.”
And if all of this weren’t yet enough, clearly the world is a better place now that the Cubs have claimed the 2016 World Series.