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Illustration by Krieg Barrie

Binoculars in the mirror

Here's what you told me you think about the future

Issue: "GOP idea man," May 22, 2010

I'm doing something here that I've never done in WORLD magazine's 24-year history. Instead of telling you something that I've been thinking, I'm going to tell you what quite a number of you have told me you are thinking.

In WORLD's last issue, I asked you whether in today's gloomy climate you are (1) a bit of an optimist, (2) a bit of a pessimist, or (3) a doomsday cataclysmist. (See "Grab your binoculars," May 8, 2010.)

Your responses (mostly by email) are still coming in-which prompts a few words about statistics and sampling.

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When you ask a question like this of a very diverse audience, you shouldn't put too much stock in the early responses. The radicals and extremists tend to speak up first-and most loudly. But I've also learned that after the first hundred responses, things tend to sort themselves out more quickly than you might expect. Those first hundred responses-in almost any survey-will tend to mirror fairly accurately the next hundred, and even the next thousand, responses. It's one of the quirks of sampling.

So I'm not pretending that these are precise figures. But I am saying that if I'd had a response from all the thousands of folks who read WORLD, the statistical split wouldn't probably be all that different. I have a sense that the big oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, which happened right after I first posed my question, is with each passing day skewing the results toward the darker side. That's the dynamic of measuring public opinion.

But for now: Roughly 25 percent of you are mildly optimistic about the next 3-5 years. Another 25 percent of you are mildly pessimistic. A few more than 40 percent of you are grimly pessimistic. And the rest of you were pretty stubborn about committing yourselves to any of the three options.

As a group, you all tend to think in very theological terms. Many of you took pains to assure me that in terms of the big picture and the ultimate scenario, you are confident that God is in control. In that sense, you're all optimists. "It's going to be bad," said Fred McCormack of Plano, Tex., "but I can't wait to see how good the Lord is going to make even what's bad."

But that hardly obscures the fact that two-thirds of you are gloomy about the years just ahead. I count twice as many pessimists among you as optimists.

Some, like Nick Stuart of Naperville, Ill., expect some kind of external attack. "At worst," he said, "I expect the U.S. to be knocked back to the mid-19th century by simultaneous electromagnetic pulses over San Francisco, St. Louis, Philadelphia, and New York. Probably Iranian." Some are translating that into immediate caution. Tom Haller wrote: "So I tell the missions committee, my [fellow elders], and anyone else that wants my input that my answer to everything at this time is no. No new spending, no new construction, no new support. . . . 'Be still and know that I am God.'" Indeed, a whole lot of you are buckling down and preparing for hard times-some for the short term, and apparently even more for some years to come (see our cover story for more on that).

The sluggish economy clearly affects our thinking, but bad ideas and bad behavior get more blame for the pessimism than bad use of dollars. "Things must get worse," says Eddie Settles of Monteagle, Tenn., "before we will listen to Godly wisdom. I do believe we will listen. God just has to give us 'tough love' until we get it."

Ted Smethers of Hot Springs, Ark., probably spoke for many others when he confessed: "Things are going to get very bad. However, I don't fully live my life like I really believe that. . . . There is so much we could and should do if we really believed."

If the returns over the next couple of weeks significantly change the statistical profile, I'll let you know. In the meantime, you'll be interested to know that in a late poll from Afghanistan, 71 percent of the people there expect that their lives will be better a year from now than they are right now. That's up by 20 points from a year ago. There's also been a 14-point jump in expectations that the next Afghan generation will have a better life than the current one. The 61 percent who think that is just about double the number in the United States who think that about their own children.

Joel Belz
Joel Belz

Joel, WORLD's founder, writes a regular column for the magazine and contributes commentaries for The World and Everything in It. He is also the author of Consider These Things.

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