It's pretty clear that people are not happy in the United States, but it can be perplexing if you look at the numbers.
Unemployment is down. Jobs are up. Wages are going up. All good news! Hooray!
So, why are people angry? What's with the Trump love and the Bernie love? Why the calls for revolution?
Here's how I explained it to somebody today, when they noted that the unemployment rate is around 5% -- a huge improvement from what we had in the depths of the recession -- and wondered why people were so unhappy.
Imagine that the entire population of the United States was only 10,000 people. That will make our math easier.
To further simplify things, let's say that there only five places in the United States. Here they are:
- Place A -- Population: 100; Unemployment Rate: 38%; Number of Unemployed: 38 people.
- Place B -- Population: 1,000; Unemployment Rate: 10%; Number of Unemployed: 100 people.
- Place C -- Population: 500; Unemployment Rate: 10%; Number of Unemployed: 50 people.
- Place D -- Population: 8,000; Unemployment Rate: 3.5%; Number of Unemployed: 280 people.
- Place E -- Population: 400; Unemployment Rate: 8%; Number of Unemployed: 32 people.
What Does the Math Tell Us?
If you do the math, we've got 500 people who don't have jobs, right? Given a total population of 10,000, we have a modest and perfectly acceptable national unemployment rate of 5%. The people should be happy, right?
But let's take another look at the numbers.
If we assume that it sucks to live in a place that has unemployment at an 8% or higher rate, then how many people live in those bad locations? Well, Place A is dreadful, obviously, but, based on the numbers above, the only "good" place to live is Place D.
Even if you have a job in, say, Place E, you're probably keenly aware that a lot of people in your community are struggling and out of work. Maybe it's on the news all the time. Maybe crime rates are up, or at least you think they are if you believe in a probably non-existent correlation between poverty and crime. It's all about perception, not reality.
So, now let's look at the big picture here.
Looking at our 5 locations and our 10,000 citizens, we have 2,000 people who live in "bad" places, who are likely keenly aware that the world is not as they'd like it to be.
So, even though only 5% of the population is unemployed, 20% of the population is not content and might be ready for a big change in the status quo.
Because they are angry, they are going to also be vocal and vote in higher proportions than the happy people who live in Place D. Happy people are too busy being happy to go out and vote in the primaries.
So, now let's assume that 40% of the unhappy people vote, and only 10% of the happy people vote.
Well, 40% of 2,000 is 800, and 10% of 8,000 is also 800. So, in our fictional recast of the United States, we have 1,600 people who vote and 50 percent of them are hopping mad about the world.
See how the math works? We went from only 5% of the population not having jobs to 50% of them not being happy because of it -- possibly so mad that they'd be rabidly willing to support a complete overhaul of the government.
To me, this math explains what we are seeing in the current election cycle. Where's Happy Place D? Is that Wall Street? Is that big urban towns in the North? Is that Silicon Valley where you can find a millionaire under every rock?
It's Not Just About Geography
Or is Happy Place D not a place but, rather, a race and a demographic population?
For Places A, B, C, D and E, substitute these labels: Young Urban Black; Female Students Graduating from College Now; White Poor and in the South; Rich White Big City Folks; and Hispanic/Latino.
I'm not saying these are real numbers for these demographics. All of this is fictional. But you get the idea.
The key learning here is that politics are local and personal.
The national trend or average really does not matter. When people say that on average the world is getting better, you shouldn't care. Respond that statistics that use broad averages are meaningless.
How This Relates to Income Disparity (and Other Disparities)
The other thing you should see from my numbers is that a "happiness disparity" is what leads to revolution.
According to Oxfam, we now live in a world where the richest 62 people are as wealthy as half of world's population. That's right 62 specific people in the world have a combined higher net worth than 3.5 billion other people who also live on our planet.
That is perhaps the most amazing and pathetic statistic I've ever heard in my life.
A call for revolution? You decide.
We saw a recent call for revolution in the Arab Spring, didn't we? Look at Egypt. The unhappy masses revolted against the government, trying to get to a better place. In the end, the rich and powerful took back control, and the Egyptian revolutionaries are in a worse place now than they were before.
That's really the problem. The entrenched 1% have all the money, all the guns and all the power. The 99% are powerless against that.
Maybe there used to be power in numbers, but not anymore.
Still, it's good to understand numbers and, for today's lesson, it can explain why so many people are voting for Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, even though the overall economy is actually doing pretty well.
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