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September 24, 2008


progressive reactionary

Well said. Your notion of "delusional optimism" also makes me think of the now-common campaign strategy of delusional, endless repetition of falsehoods until they become accepted truths. It seems like not only our economy but our entire politics and culture is now predicated on delusion!!

Fed up

Thank you for being open and sharing with us what you think. Unfortunately, people only too often do not look for the facts. Instead they only see what they want to see, and say only what they think others want to hear. Fundamentally, people do not think that they think all their own thoughts nor make their own choices!!


I've had a hard time explaining why these self-help people irritate me so much. You nailed it. They're just like the idiots who started the war in Iraq and sneered at the "reality-based community" because we didn't have the gumption to make our own reality.


Not so new. I read (and tried to follow) Napoleon Hill's "Think and Grow Rich" back in the early '60. Worked at first, then went to my head and finally I had to go through my own "recession" and have never been in debt since. Hard but good lesson.

E. Nowak

Wow, this is an amazing essay! I've been thinking this in a nebulous way but I didn't have the words to articulate the thoughts the way you did. I especially fault Oprah Winfrey. I think she has single-handedly sold a bill of goods to American women. "You can have it all!" Sure, if I made her income, I could have it all, too.

I love how she has shows where she has experts scold viewers about their spending habits, but then 99% of her "average people" guests are upper middle class women with great clothes, makeup, shoes bodies, houses, kids, etc. And let's not forget "Oprah's favorite things." Or episodes where she gives tours of her mansions or styling tips from her various "life stylists." Who can afford the Oprah lifestyle except a small minority of people? It's the lie of our consumer society.

Finally, when I heard Oprah say on her show, "No one should have fake flowers in their house! Only real! And they should have them all the time!" It was her Marie Antoinette moment. That's when I said, "Off with my TV!" I haven't watched her since.

Jody Lanard

Calvinistic negativity as described in your essay is not the only kind of "negative."

Wellesley professor Julie Norem writes about "Defensive Pessimism," which includes (among other aspects) thinking through worst-case scenarios, and planning ways to cope with anxiety-provoking situations, rather than avoiding such planning.

"Defensive pessimism" isn't depressing -- it is close to what you mean by "realism" in some ways.

It characterizes several Asian cultures in which people plan much more for a rainy day -- without losing their joy and zest for life.

In Singapore, there is even a word that captures this: Kiasu!

GS Chandy

Ms Ehrenreich:

It is certainly possible for most of us - individuals as well as nations - to 'do our stuff' or 'get our acts together' in a better way than we are currently doing.

I agree that it is downright foolish to indulge oneself in what you term as the "delusional optimism of mainstream, all-American, positive thinking, as promoted by Oprah, scores of megachurch pastors, and an endless flow of self-help bestsellers" - but it definitely becomes difficult to accomplish even what one is actually capable of if one is entirely sceptical and/or "negative" about stuff.

What's needed is to arrive at a truly realistic assessment and understanding of what one should be striving towards. That is to say, DON'T be delusional about your 'positive thinking' (in the way that you've rightly poked holes into in your thought-piece), but, equally, don't be 'delusionally negative' either, in a way that hinders you from acting positively in pursuit of worthwhile goals. In order to accomplish something, it would always be useful to set oneself a *realistic* 'Mission', then ask oneself the following 'trigger question': "What, in my opinion, are the THINGS TO DO to accomplish my Mission?"

The list of ideas that one gets in response to that trigger question (perhaps with assistance from friends and others, worthwhile books, and the like) can then be developed into an action plan to help accomplish the Mission over time (by integrating appropriate things to do to overcome barriers and weaknesses and the like). I'd like to send you some information about how this process works. May I send you a PowerPoint presentation and a couple of Word documents about it? If you find my arguments realistic, you may like to feature some discussion on my counter to some of your negative thoughts about 'thinking positive'.

Thanks and regards
GS Chandy

Darren Lewin-Hill

Good post, Barbara. I'd be interested in your thoughts about how this kind of false positive thinking is also affecting current ideas about parenting. It's good to build confidence in children, but I think in some cases parents build what I consider obscene confidence, where a child begins to see him- or herself as the most valuable member of society, limitless in capacity and also entitlement. Maybe what this leads to is the kind of person who becomes a positive-thinking business leader, whose optimism leaves its footprints on the victims of the amoral pursuit of profit at any cost, not to mention the planet.


Realism, yes we need and I dare say are getting a good dose of it. But we also need to find a way to restore trust. I think the first radio advertisement started the slide and television advertisement set the fall of truth cascading into the abyss. It has all but disappeared taking trust and trustworthiness along with it. Who truly trusts anything they hear? Who do you trust in government? If they bear the title 'politician' -- where's the trust? If a company says "this is good for you" who believes it.

I am perhaps doubly disillusioned having just completed a 'merit' evaluation from my employer who is having budget problems. My 'boss' was told to give us all mediocre values on our merit evaluation. I suppose that gives them a reason to not give reasonable wage increases or opens the door for reasons to 'downsize' us out the door. So my work evaluation has nothing to do with merit and everything to do with more lies, half-truths, and nothing whatsoever about the loyalty and effort I put into my work. And employers wonder where loyalty has gone?

How does one restore trust, I wonder?

I appreciate that you point out something that until now has been protected by 'politically correct' attitudes. I hope a few more fall from that protection and we can actually start to get real again and face our problems rather than pretend that 'all is well.'


As someone who was faulted for being realistic, I can attest to the deaf ears that dominate Corporate America.

Like Cassandra of old who could see the future, but no one believed her, our society only wants to hear the good news.

To philosphy of punishing the messenger is ingrained in our society.

I grew up in a family where something was always going wrong and learned early to PLAN FOR THE WORST. I've lived my life that way and taken a lot of heat for it.

The Tony Robbins and others of his ilk are selling snake oil. It's made them rich and their followers delusional. The super-optimstic TV types are cult leaders in the same vein as Jim Jones. They put the blame on the victim if you're downsized, get sick, have a parent with dementia, etc.

According to them EVERYTHING is can be achieve with a postive attitude.

Fine. Let's seem them lift the market and solve the credit crisis.

Julie Laursen

Thank you so much Barbara. Whenever I feel like the odd one out, all I have to do is read an excerpt from your books or blog to know that I'm not crazy. I've felt the same way for a very long time, and have lost more than a few jobs by not being "positive" enough and not having enough "passion" for the job. And btw, the jobs I lost were all in accounting. In all my non-corporate jobs, I've excelled. Unfortunately, all my friends have bought into books like "The Secret" so I've felt no one shares my grief. By the way, I graduated two years ago with an MBA and bachelors in computer science. I currently work at a call center, train clients at a gym, am doing an unpaid computer field technician internship, promote alcohol sales through a modeling company, do taxes at H&R Block, and strip at an gentleman's club once a week to pay my loans/private health insurance, which is so high that I am struggling even with six jobs. Bait and Switch was comfort food for me. Thank you again for your words.


Preach it, Barbara!!
One wonders if there are also mind-altering substances involved in such delusional optimism.... Crack, Prozac, hm. As a German living in the U.S., this can often feel quite creepy, as if one lives in the nation of Stepford.
And true enough, it's never very helpful to go from one extreme to the other, from negative to positive, or vice versa. Oh, if we could figure out some blurring of the lines and balance...


Of course we should try to balance optimism and pessimism. Of course things can't always be good, better, best without limit.

I agree with Barbara that this mess resulted partly from too much positive thinking. But on the other hand, what we have now is just a bigger more extreme example of what has happened many times in many places. As real estate prices went up and up and up, no one could say exactly when the party would finally be over. And some were high enough on success to convince themselves that what goes up keeps going up.

What we had was the Enron phenomenon on a global scale. Corruption and crookedness, gambling mania, self-deception, lack of foresight, along with honest miscalculation, all added up to mega-disaster.

The only thing new about this crisis is its unprecedented magnitude, and that's only because the US and world economies are so much bigger than ever before.


I do not agree saying positive thinking wrecked the economy. If you think positive how can that wreck an economy therefore the economy would be in better shape than it is.

Danny Boy

Yeah, I've known churches in which the so-called "name it, claim it" and "health and wealth" gospels were taught as natural scientific laws. Moreover, it was common for the church (in general) to insist that if you tithed, you would be blessed with checks rolling in the mail from nowhere, care of "sowing and reaping doctrines". Obviously, the church got its money, which it then abused. However, any failure to find checks in your mialbox dropped down from heaven was chocked up to a lack of "faith", read here as positive thinking. It's easy to defeat an unrealistic, postitive thinking cream puff in a debate. But thanks to their positive thinking, those people are usually deluded into thinking they are still right. Now they're probably homeless. Unless they're mooching off someone.

Barbara E

Thanks to everyone for their comments. Solo, Julie, and others: I'm looking for cases of people who got into trouble at work for being insufficiently positive. Please write to me at barbeh@aol.com. Thanks.


Oh. My. God. You came back from being gone over a month and you didn't write about Sarah Palin?!

This is worse than the "Not Without My Anus" episode!

I totally disagree with the premise of this essay though. The "positive thinking" movement IS Calvinism - it's just wearing a slightly different outfit.

Calvinism is based on the idea that we are responsible for our own salvation.

Twist that a little to the right and you get objectivism: the belief that we create our own destinies to such an extreme degree that no one can ever take responsibility for the situation of someone else.

But twist it a little to the left and you get the self-help movement. Liberals aren't inclined to see the ugly face of it right away because a lot of it (especially when you get into alternative medicine) is shrouded in liberal language of equal rights and environmentalism.

But it's the same old Calvinism: You are ultimately responsible for your own salvation, so if anything goes wrong, you have no one to blame but yourself.

I'll email you the only story I have that illustrates my point.


I think some lenders may have deluded themselves, believing that somehow all of these people with toxic mortgages would pay up. They'd cut spending, sell the plasma TV, take a second job and so on. What they didn't understand, because they have no idea what living on $30-40,000 a year means was that they couldn't make enough money to pay the mortgage if they worked 24/7, that there wasn't much to sell and they'd already cut spending to afford the introductory mortgage rate.


Was this the United States our founding fathers intended for us? Its so clearly geared to the benifit of the rich, which has now formed an elite class above the people. The middle class was more a temporary phenommena post world war 11, the age of television and mass commercialsim, and the peak of our industrialization. Now they have sunk it by diluting that work force with untold millions of new immigrants and elevation of the former slaves of the agrarian south to compete. The middle class was simply a temproray triumph of large numbers of workin people and pershaps the late 60's signaled the end of it. Now its just an illusion that credit cards and creative borrowing helped prolong another few decades. Its no wonder real incomes haven't increased for this group since 1968, the year aftet the Tate LaBianca hollywood murders that killed the peace and free love of the 60's that was mostly a middle class young people's movement. Then corporate america got smart and co-opted that lifestyle into its marketing while pushing a go-go anybody can make it era. At the same time it got the government to start building the velvet police state that has recently taken off its gloves to the citizenry over all matters of things, while completely ignoring the outright fraud of wallstreet. There is no middle class, just a credit empowered populace that feeds those at the top with magnified gains. When they ran into a finanical wall of their own undoing, they got the government to bail them out big time while offering next to nothing to the working classes. This nation eats its own and burps out anything it doesn't like to be cleaned up by the custodial crew at public expense. How convienent for those at thet top. They paid themsleves 10's, 100's, 1000's of millions of dollars and hardly anyone sqwaked. It took forever for the media to even beging to carry this story. I think the people have been cheated in ways the founding fathers would have been shocked at. True they represented mainly farming interests compared to todays finanical industry. Isn't tripling the price of a home, thus the mortgage payements, a type of useary? I think they w ould have seen that immediately as human nature has changed little if at all. I would love to see them look over some of these banking and mortgage ledgers and how wallstreet works. This is what their country of intent has become. What would they say?

Danny Boy

Brian does have a good point there. The protections built into the constitution by the founding fathers were meant to protect the people from a tyrannical governement. These protections included the bill of rights, 3 branches of government with checks and balances, and periodic elections. However, the founding fathers could never have seen the rise of multinational corporations, like banking institutions, which are far more powerful and tyrannical than any government in world history. Without such foresight, we have been stuck with a constitution that is too weak to handle the threats of highly bureaucratized multinational corporations.

I'm not sure what the solution is, but here is an idea: The only way to fix this is to have elected officials in office who are not money motivated, and will stand up to MNCs. This means writing laws. This means repealing other laws protecting MNCs. Moreover, it would also help to get the ball rolling on amending the constitution, since it does not address multinational corporations. Maybe a constitutional convention? Of course, I know this is a pipe dream. Where are we going to find politicians uncorrupted enough to do this? I leave this to all of us, as an assignment.


There is no reason the people couldn't convene a constitutional convention to simply update the constitution for the modern era. There are plenty of history and legal and economic scholars out there looking for a new wikepdia like hobby. They could ceertainly do plenty of research and make lots of nice charts. As a populist cause it would draw in some of the elected politicians too. It would not be binding, but would create great national and press interest and vett some of or best and worst ideas to hone into a finished document we could simply present on the media or to congress with a large peaceful march that garners the kind of attention mlk got. I am sure it would have a profound effect.

Frank Sabatino

This govenment is based on Natural Law Theory, that each human has the right to compete, survive, pursue happiness, and keep his profits. Any collectivism shall have direct representation back to the individual. This system represents the natual condition of humans, as primarily preditory pack animals.

Frank Sabatino


yes, we are certainly predatory pack animals, that is why when I look at the architecture of skylines such as NYC and SF it makes me wonder where all that engineering talent came from.


Denmark has consistently won the happiest country on earth. Why? They have low expectations. If something good happens, then great, but they don't expect to be rich, or never get old, etc. Something to think about. Another thing is that Danish culture is fair. wages are fair, health care is free and lavish. If you think America is a Democracy, then you must be joking. I have no hope that America will ever be a good place to live in again. This whole place is going down. Move to Denmark, Canada, Ireland, or some other "civilized" place to live. Do any of you really want to raise kids here? Another main reason is that in post industrial America they simply don't need that many workers anymore. The working class and most of the middle class is going to scrape by. If you aren't already rich, there is very little chance of becoming rich, even if you are smart or talented. There simply aren't the avenues for you. It is much like winning the lottery. Same thing with playing professional sports, look at the statistics. How many people become a famous actor, etc.? The American dream has to be redefined around family and friends and little comforts.


well our type of speed up economy has taken us from our family and friends and none of us have free time to do anything other than work and shop anymore. America's population has grown 100 million in my time so our growth rate is extremely high compared to other developed nations. You can feel the crowding pushing us all in, and creating a more cantankerous self absorbed populace. Perhaps that is why there are so many more laws on the books, zero tolerance, and so many arrested for all sorts of "offencses" now. The only thing allowed anymore is to work and to shop. When I was a kid a fathers income would be sufficient to provide a middle class living for a family of 4-7 and they would have some free time to pursue friends, hobbies, sports, travel, a small house on the shore. Now it takes two incomes to barely scrape by with a simple house and a perpetual wall of incoming bills and no free time. The pressures are so great they are tearing apart middle class families. I am not even talking about the poorer people in urban and rural areas who have become fatherless single parent hellholes with many disturbed kids moving through the juvenile justice system, many members of predatory felony gangs. Denmark is one of those countries where everybody gets 5-6 weeks vacation and they really celebrate their holidays like we use to. The American press use to roundly criticize their long vacations as I guess the American corporate advertisers didn't want their workers taking more than a week or two, and amazingly our own workers bought into their master's interests. What I see is the type of corporate economy we have has substituted its own interests in profits and power over a better more fun lifestyle for its workers. You can understand this up to a point, but the obssessive hammering of the middle class's previous lifestyle so that they can pay every more of what was once their wealth to the leadership and moneyed classes. It is a one way class warfare, where the media pushes the star system in sports and industry in a way that ordinary workers without a hint of a chance believe they too can become a star if they just work harder. Shows like American Idol and teams like the lakers so brainwash the optimistic viewers, most of whom will be lucky to even get two full weeks a year vacation to really take. So yes, I agree your take is on mark. I can remember when it was pretty common for the town's men to stop in a bar and have a few beers with friends on the way home from work or on a holiday and it wasn't a felony or job loser. People had hobbies, people built up fantastic yards and did much of their won remodeling and painting of their house and grew beautiful little gardens. Now all that is either not done or outsourced to the lowest on the labor totem pole, usually immigrants where once it was high school kids and local tradespeople. With that goes our sense of community and new strata's are shelved in insulating our organic feeling of being interconnected. I can see why the government is so worried over a possible credit contraction as that could fundamentally be a game changer if people start finding alternative ways to occupy themselves rather than simply working and shopping.


There is a book by Jonathan Black entitled "Yes You Can!Hype and Hustle in the Motivational Biz" - the world it uncovers is amazing. Magical thinking is the opium of the masses! Thank you Barbara -


Thank-you Mrs. Ehrenreich for all of your seriously good work.

It's of interest to me that the media keeps stressing the total myth of how IRA accounts will plummet and we must support the 700 Billion bailout or else fiscal Armageddon will ensue without cease. Even Betsy "The establishment analyst" Stark pointed out on The Disney Channel (ABC) with Chucky Gibson is of interest that only 67 million (approximately 20%) of Americans even have IRA's and the median amount in them is less than $20,000, which is almost the "why bother to fret amount", it's so pathetically low.

A more accurate or less dreamy Disney Pautsch way of putting it is that the only people who are going to be hurt by Wall Street woes are the people who have been causing diurnal woes to the working class in this country for decades anyways.

It's interesting to me that I have never met a poor person who is optimistic, bathed in perpetual high spirits and have also yet to meet a financially secure person who is depressed. Maybe the cat is finally sticking its head out of the bag and pyschobabble terms like optimistic/pessimistic or happy and depressed which organic intellectuals like Oprah Winfrey and Dr. Phil McGraw have been medicating their audiences into slumber with their siren-song horseshit.

The people who own the society want to use valet services and have you come clean their houses and cook them meals but they want you to cover it all up with a nice pleasant non-negative SSRI smile so they don't have to see the truth. Because the truth is something profit evidently ain't too concerned about.


Go ahead Congressfolk, MAKE OUR DAY

Perhaps eloquence in proposing meaningful reform might inspire such in Congress? Their jobs are at stake...

Consider an anomymous letter:

My Honorable Congressional Public Servant (your name here),

I've had an epiphany. I want your job, and I think I can get it. All you need do is vote YES on The Bailout.

Your flights between home and the storied halls of Washington may soon end; please enjoy the few remaining. (Wonder if you’ve been electing business or economy class at our expense…)

Yea, so numerous are we little people swarming the floor of the economy, and so deep our disgust for the abominable inequities in national wealth distribution, that your impending failure to act on our behalf in knowing the urgency of NO’ing The Bailout can do nothing but lay your Congressional neck on the block for summary severance, with no package to speak of but a leaden parachute to hasten your fall into political Hades.

King Bush and his Courtly Knights of the Round Trough of CEO Gluttony have collectively secreted away how many billions in their personal coffers? How could they possibly - and so desperately - want ANYthing other than taxpayer money to miraculously pluck their evaporating fortunes from whatever drain down which they‘re being drawn?

Hear our rage: we ARE NOT BUYING the same sort of factless, exaggerated paranoia that scared us into the Iraq War, and then -- quite possibly -- generated the disaster now terrifyingly unfolding. Those with nothing have nothing to lose, yet have complete power over your professional future. It is the rich who are panicked; let’s CALL their ghost of a bluff. Bubbles burst, bubbles reform. We WILL survive, spirited Americans just DO. Is this not how we got here and footprinted the moon?

The Bush/Paulson cabal struggles mightily with Excalibur: the sword needed to cut through their fumbled, misfinanced malfeasance appears locked in Congressional stone. The more they yank and flail at it, parading one after another, the faster it holds. How to vote Yes when it will cost you your job?

A prominent Senator, in a moment of deep wisdom and selfless patriotism, recently proposed the very grease needed to loosen this swordlock: limit compensation in ALL of corporate and private America to that of the highest public servant in this great land, that of the President. NO ONE should be paid more then s/he, entrusted as s/he is with leadership of the free world. Include this admittedly most bitter of pills in The Bailout legislation, and all of Congress will vote proudly, fearlessly and resoundingly YES, indelibly imprinting their legacies among the ever turning pages of societal evolution. People the world over will immediately see this change, this REVOLUTION, this adaptation, for what it will be: a towering, unequalable landmark along the rutted and tortuous road to at last ending poverty and to securing our future on this, the greatest and most powerful planet the solar system has ever known, shining envy of all others.

Cherished compatriots, comearthlings, humanity will have but one chance at Immortality on our small and shrinking globe, and will neither soon nor perhaps ever have another to screw up; let us then boldy commit to more responsibly and farsightedly husbanding our precious and ever more stressed Mother Earth, shall we?

Life’s most important lesson is learned in kindergarten: the power of sharing. Clearly our Wall Street executives are masterful wizards of shares both common and preferred; how could they have SO monstrously warped something SO simple?

‘Check,’ says Paulson. ‘NO, but check MATE,’ this author sternly rejousts, humbly riding the power of anonymity, stately Congress his Arthurian steed. ‘Allow the pruning of your bloated excesses, and only then will you be saved. The anointing waters of world peace await the bowed and humbled pates of you and your bilking ilk. The grandest of history is in the making, here, now, before the eyes of the world, before the illimitable vision of eternity.’

Appreciative of your reflective attention to these matters most urgent,

John Q. Public

max penny

Okay, but the other aspect of positive thinking that infects American discourse is this widespread delusion that we're all maybe going to be rich someday. Most of us won't, actually. I think this misconception plays a big role in sustaining the crazy, persistent identification with the lifestyles of the wealthy, and the misplaced confidence that it is the "underclass" not the upper class that we have to be afraid of.

The tide is turning however. Nothing like an economic collapse to breathe new life into class consciousness. I love this pair of anti-McCain spots that popped up on HuffPost (they're basically the same video but in a white collar version and a blue collar version)



I think this captures the mood that the country is heading towards.


Max, your first paragraph is right on yet so few people seem to grasp its fundamental explaination of the genesis of our national problems and dissatisfactions with this corporatecentric lifestyle. I think in many ways people are just copycats and mimic what they think is successful. The upperclass is predatory and smart in how they legalize what they do and in how they keep their ill gotten gains. Your right a rare moment of frustration on the part of the rest of us at Wallstreet is being openly voiced. I wonder how long it will last?


I think when a lot of people look at their 401k quarterly statements in a few weeks they will finally realize how vulnerable they are to Wallstreet and the markets and wonder how in the heck did their retirements get put into them, when a generation ago people could count on a steady pension. Now they are forced to swim with the wallstreet sharks who make most of their money on short term volatility buying long or short which depletes any long term gains folks with 401k's need to make them grow. Plus many companies dropped their promised matches or reduced them so its nearly totally up to the employee to save out of their paycheck whatever money they might one day have if they invest it in the lucky right funds. I don't know why people are so passive about this ripoff. All a 401k does is send part of people's wages to wallstreet for overall meager returns if there isn't some big boom market going on, and they always crash anyways. Then if these folks try and hide out in money markets at 1.6 percent they find that isn't secure either. Where does it stop? I heard today wallstreet payed out 60 billion in bonus's this past christmas's. So no matter what happens, those further up the wallstreet ladder are going to weather the current crises just fine compared to the average worker.


In the U.S., we've reached a crisis of TOO MUCH STUFF. We want everything and we buy it on credit. Maybe the best thing about this economic breakdown will be that Americans realize that owning more stuff doesn't make them happy. If that would happen, then this crisis is actually a good thing.


this is crap


Solo said: "They put the blame on the victim if you're downsized, get sick, have a parent with dementia, etc." Jennifer said: "If anything goes wrong, you have no one to blame but yourself."

However, it should be pointed out that if one commits cold-blooded murder, one of the most serious crimes there is, he/she is considered innocent until proven guilty in the eyes of civil law. Even after conviction, he/she is fed and otherwise provided for at taxpayer expense for the rest of his/her life if sentenced to life in prison.

Even if sentenced to death, he/she is similarly provided for up until the execution is carried out, which can often be years later. In either case, the length of time that one is provided for at taxpayer expense is often much longer than the five-year lifetime time limit on eligibility for receiving welfare.

It is time to insist that innocent until proven guilty also apply to ALL the economically vulnerable. This ought to be the case anytime but especially during an economic downturn. Even if some such victims do deserve some blame, the presumption ought to be on the side of assuming that they do not deserve blame. In other words, the burden of proof ought to be on the side of showing that the victim is to blame, if that is the case.

Similarly, on the question of the deserving versus the undeserving poor, the presumption ought to be on the side of being deserving in case of doubt. In other words, the burden of proof ought to be on the side of showing that a poor person is undeserving, if that is the case.

Also, especially during an economic downturn, the presumption ought to be that unemployment is not the fault of the individual. In other words, the burden of proof ought to be on the side of showing that unemployment is the fault of the individual, if that is the case. It is time to DEMAND a TOTAL STOP to the presumption that, even in a recession, unemployment still considered to be the fault of the individual.

Even if individual fault can be proven in the cases above, the faults cannot possibly be serious enough to warrant capital punishment. Practically speaking, the deliberate denial of the necessities of life to someone, such as denying food to those who refuse to work, is a form of capital punishment. Laziness cannot possibly be serious enough to warrant capital punishment.

In an economy where there are not enough jobs to go around, some minimum income MUST be provided even to those who do not work. It is totally unacceptable to have any time limits whatsoever on the provision of such income. Such time limits violate the presumption of innocent until proven guilty, and unjustly impose the practical equivalent of capital punishment for actions that cannot possibly be that serious.

A good starting point for providing such a minimum income would be to convert the standard deduction and dependency exemption from tax deductions into REFUNDABLE tax credits. In addition, the child tax credit ought to be 100% refundable. That way, even those who earn too little to owe income tax, including those with no income at all, would get the full benefit of those tax breaks.

Christopher John Podany

Hey Barbie! I really liked your blog gurl. Holla!

Kelli Herbel




Your points are well-conceived and well-stated. I often write on similar topics. I'm concerned with too simplistically attacking positive thinking as the culprit, though. I think there is a difference between a healthy approach to positively thinking in ways that help you progress in life and what I would term "unrealistic thinking".

Positive thinking is a prerequisite for progressing in life. If we don't believe in ourselves and our prospects for success, we don't achieve.

However, some people push that into "magical" or "unrealistic" thinking. This kind of thinking ignores facts is the equivalent of pulling the arm on a slot machine and hoping something good comes up.

I actually encourage people to move from positive thinking to empowered thinking. That includes thought, knowledge, and action aspects.

I agree with the sense of delusion many have painted and falsely expected related to our economy, but blaming positive thinking goes a bit too far.


Very interesting post, though I must say I don't entirely agree with it. Positive thinking did not wreck the economy. Some of the most successful entrepreneurs are Pollyanna's. Consider Richard Branson, for example.

I think we, as a nation, are not suffering from want of cynicism, but of lack of critical thinking. Our schools champion social skills over critical thinking and intellectualism. Being positive and upbeat greases the wheels of communication, enabling people to work together more effectively. As a nation, we don't need to become more cynical, but more thoughtful. Perhaps we may even need to slow down and place less emphasis on hyperactive, compulsive achievement and winning at all costs and more emphasis on developing good character, discernment, and making wise, thoughtful, good decisions.

Our founding fathers were optimists and created a system of government which relied on the moral integrity of their countrymen. They were also thoughtful enough to admonish us to be eternally vigilant and to check against the abuses of power. They were people of strong religious conviction who valued education. People don't make poor decisions because they are too happy, but because they haven't developed a thoughtful plan, examined their options, and done their homework. Such patient, thoughtfulness is discouraged in a world of instant gratification.

People who have embraced God are filled with love and joy and are also highly effective. But we must also be aligned with integrity and prepared to accept the truth and all of its consequences. We are not looking at a crisis of optimism but a crisis of character -- people unwilling to do the right thing.

Many people, by the way, were entirely aware of that the intelligence did not warrant the Iraqi invasion. We did not proceed anyway because we were blindly optimistic, but rather that Americans are too poorly versed in foreign policy -- and too few people were willing to state the obvious and tell truth to power. Many saw the truth but did not deliver it. Again, goes back to character.

However, if we as a people worship money, power, and blind achievement over God, why would we challenge the president when the establishment had determined that we would go to war. To challenge conventional wisdom would have resulted in being fired or locked out of the establishment and denied professional and social opportunities, but some people did anyway -- including Ambassador Wilson, and the country rallied around him.

Dianne Heath

I worry about the mentality of America daily, but these comments give me some hope.
Thanks :)


Hear hear! Let's hear it for the Calvinists. They never demanded health-care benefits and pensions, which is why they never broke General Motors.

Jerry Mack

Follow the bouncing smiley face dangled on the stick that's held over the edge of the cliff and all your dreams will come true! Whoops!


The idea that the constitution needs to be *updated* is completely absurd. The constitution simply needs to be followed and enforced. The notion that we can seemingly "reinterpret" what it says only means that the judges who are determining these cases don't really believe it to be the law of the land(I guess that idea is akin to homosexuals becoming police officers only because of the amount of power the job gives them, IE radical egotism) It would seem to me that the general ramblings going on here are akin to a fish whining about the sun shining in his face in a glass case at the fish market. If you wish to know why the economy is failing, pick up a book on the Austrian school of economics, and when you finish that, pick up a book on the federal reserve, instead of trying to justify your claim by pointing out some irrelevant and trivial half-truth to support your argument.

Susanna Viljanen

I think you have all gotten wrong with Calvinism.

The fundamental principle of Calvinism is the concept of predestination. That God has foreordained beforehand, even before you were born, your final depository - whether it is Heaven or Hell, and you can do absolutely nothing with it.

But the very idea is that you may get hint of what is your final depository on how well you fare on your earthly life. If you get rich, it is a sign you have been predestined to Heaven, if you get poor, it is a sign you have been predestined to Hell.

That is what dictates the Calvinist ethics. You may never be sure whether you belong in the God's elect or the God's reprobates, so you'd better work out to get a hint on which side you belong. And if you try hard and still fail, it is a sure sign you are one of the damned.


I am over 40 years old. I remember a time when good skills, a good resume and good interview were important to getting the job. Nowadays, its all based on "personality testing". In some cases, I've been required to take these tests before being granted an interview!

I have very strong skills and worked hard in school. Employers don't want me because I don't have the right "image". I was fired from my last job because I was told I don't smile enough. Even though most of the day I was working in a cubicle by myself. I always thought smiling and acting cutesy was more important for, say, some sort of entertainment profession.

Jacqueline S. Homan

I agree with Marion. The "positive thinking" smokescreen has turned the US into a Stepford nation. And this Stepford nation has been prolific with snakeoil salesmenhawking their Horatio Alger recipes...profiting handsomely from selling their tripe to desperate people who truly wanted - and needed - to believe that they really had a fair fighting chance.

As to Brian's post regarding what our founding fathers would say. Here's a clue based on what they did say over 200 years ago:

"If the American people ever allow private banks to control the issue of their money, forst by inflation and then by deflation, the banks that will grow up around them will deprive the people of their property until their children will wake up homeless on the continent their fathers conquered." ~ Thomas Jefferson.

What Jefferson would say today: "I told you so."

"It is to be regretted that the rich and powerful too often bend the acts of govenrment to their selfish purposes." ~ Andrew Jackson.

"If Congress has the right to issue paper money, it was given to be used by themselves, not to be delegated to individuals or corporations." ~ Andrew Jackson.

"I killed the bank!" ~ Andrew Jacson.

Andrew Jackson would probably say today:

"Where the hell were you in history class? In civics class?"

"It sucks to be right."

"Who messed with the Ouija Board and resurrected the dead?"

Or he might even co-opt the famous quote from Dr. Phil: "What were you thinking!?!?!"

Now, consider this: our founding fathers, flawed as they were, were true visionaries. They saw what was coming down the pike if the people were not vigilant. And for a bunch of hemp farmers that smoked tobacco (yes, they were eeeevil smokers - gasp!), they had a better grip on reality than the average Harvard scholar has today.

US Constitution, Article I Section 8: "Congress shall have the power to coin money, regulate the value thereof, and of foreign coin, fix the Standards of Weights and Measures."

Jacqueline S. Homan

Nancy wrote:"I am over 40 years old. I remember a time when good skills, a good resume and good interview were important to getting the job. Nowadays, its all based on "personality testing". "

Nancy, can you spell "age discrimination"? Because that's what that rat in the woodpile smells like to me.

In an economy where the number of jobseekers outnumbers the number of jobs that pay a living wage is 100 to 1, those who have always been members of disadvantaged groups (the disabled, those over 40, women, single mothers, those from the lowest socio-economic rung, etc) are even more disadvantaged and likely to be left out and unable to get a job - or be unjustly let go from a job if they have one. Employers use poverty-profiling tactics to deny job opportunities to those in most need of jobs - the poor - because of prevasive classism in our society. The poor are always presumed to be lazy, uneducated, criminals. etc. EMployers require disclosure of the SSN when you apply for a job. The SSN enables them to pull your credit report which tells them your date of birth, where you live (if you live in the "wrong" neighborhood), and if you're having problems paying your utility bills (a tell tale sign of poverty). Thus, the economically disadvantaged job applicants are discarded as job candidates - regardless of qualifications, skills, or education level.

There is no meritocracy in this country. Anyone who thinks so is an idiot who ought to be arrested for possession of brains with intent to use.

When you apply for a job, if you're a middle-aged woman you can just forget it in our superficial, shallow and selfish society that only values women who are "eye candy" - you won't stand much of a chance at getting a job that pays a living wage if you cannot conform to a highly unattainable and fraudulent standard of beauty; especially if you aren't one of those lucky enough to retain the same figure you had in high school. The effects of "lookism" was illustrated in the suit filed by Laura Zubulake against UBS Warburg, and also highlighted by an investigative team from 20/20 in a show that aired in 2004 about appearance/age discrimination in the job market.


Nicely written article. The hairs on my back stand up every time some media hack or politician scolding us for talking down the economy. Don’t talk down the economy, it might hear you and get depressed.

In a capitalist society form regularly replaces substance; it has to, as there is rarely any substance in what is being shoved down our throats in the first place. Marketing is the key, whether it is getting us to buy something we don’t need, or influencing us to vote for the preselected Presidential representative of the Corporations. Apparently Obama is brilliant and Beyonce is amazing.....and why? Well, they just are OK

All the methods of deception employed by the bourgeois to conceal the class divisions of society are being stripped bare by the unfolding calamities, which they have no answer to and are completely overwhelmed by.


Wish I could post a comment to this, but my comments don't seem to go through...


Okay, the above went through so I guess I just couldn't post my original comment...

Got kicked out of a Law of Attraction group (sort of). I was accused of being negative when I said that people should help each other.

Nobody has problems, I was told, only challenges. We only have challenges and no matter what happens, it's all a good thing, so nothing's ever really "wrong". Since the same is true of others and their challenges, we shouldn't feel obligated to help them in any way and we should avoid people who complain about their problems (because there are no real problems), etc.

I was attacked by these positive thinkers who seemed to gang up on me and my "negativity" simply because I said that I think there are people who do have real problems, that we should help others, that that is why we are here on this planet--to help each other--and that helping others helps us in our own lives. I really believe that helping other people can be a form of self-healing. I feel really good about myself when I help someone else...

But there I go again being "negative"...


You are absolutely right,and thanks for eye opening views and coming to the truth about the wrecked Economy.We need to need to be aware f the truth behind that truth and its impact on our society and Global economy.Thinking positive is good if we are thinking good keeping in mind of our Global economy.


Well said ,I agree with your views about the the delusional optimism of mainstream,We have the intention to say what other wants to hear and what they like and dislike according and we always come to a conclusion that whatever we say is correct,without knowing the facts What other wants.

Katjusa Roquette

I have been saying this for YEARS that Positive Thinking is a load of B.S. Magical Thinking for YEARS! Thank you!

Thanks for this book I intend to purchase it as soon as posssible and will link this post to my blog. Loved 'Nickled and Dimed' because it's the story of my life and damned near every life close to me!


An insightfull post. Will definitely help.

Karim - Positive thinking


Thank you so much for taking this issue on. As someone who will likely have chronic pain for the rest of life because of a condition called Chiari Malformation, I agree that the culture (or cult) of positivity had reached a fevered pitch in pre-bust America. It actually becomes to be a negative aspect in one's life if you aren't the 1% who have been blessed with the persistently optimistic genes. I also wanted to add that the profits to be made by this industry of positivity is immense and has become self reinforcing because of the number of people making a living by promoting a highly unrealistic way of thought.
It is the new utopian model, since we haven't been able to achieve one on earth, we now resort to trying to create one in our mind.
Just like the utopian ways of thought of the 20th century had the potential to bring major problems, we face possible suffering because our inability to confront reality.

Frances Anderson

Barbara - I'm a huge fan of your hard-nosed, funny, human-centered work. And I'm all in favor of exposing the fallacy of forced optimism gurus, but I also know how difficult and depressing "realism" can be - especially for those who work or volunteer a good amount of their time in social movements where the work is hard, the hours are long, the prospects are decidedly less than optimistic, and frustration and anger can contribute to infighting, poor health and broken relationships. Yes. I do disagree with your statement that "mood" has nothing to do with health. What we call "mood" is often linked with "stress" - which does impact one's health considerably. The positive effect that I have seen in some of the wider effects of the "positive thinking movement" is that it has encouraged some people I know to take responsibility for reducing or finding ways of mitigating stress in their lives - whether thru exercise, yoga, eating healthier, quitting a job that was making them miserable, cutting out addictive substances, finding a therapy that works for them, etc, etc. So let's not lose our own compass in the polemic. It is a worthwhile effort for all hardworking people to seek happiness and contentment - through changes that need to be made inside and out, but also through appreciating what is in your life right now, but may not be visible because one's attention is directed elsewhere.


I know the book is getting mixed reviews, but I commend your desire to look under the well vacumed carpet of America at what ideas are driving the culture. I made further comments on my blog:


I saw your interview on the Daily Show and then after reading this drivel makes me wonder why I initially liked your Nickel and Dimed book. Acorn and corporate greed caused the housing and economic problem --not positive psychology. You have to be brainless to think otherwise or delusional. You made fun of what you term delusional people in your interview yet you are spewing delusions with no research to back up your statements. For example you say "some nurses and letters from former cancer patients agree with you." I know of cancer patients who are real and positive. And in talking with nurses they would much rather help a realistic positive patient than a bitchy negative patient any day. What is so wrong with wanting to live a positive flourishing life? That is what Positive Psychologists like Drs. Tal Ben Shahar, Langer, Emmons, and Seligmen are trying to do. Sure Olsteen, the Secret Author and others reflect the lunatic fringe of Pollyanna thinking. If you would listen to Dr. Tal Ben Shahar in his lectures he cautions against Pollyanna thinking. But of course you need to keep the victim negative crowd growing cause that is how you make your money writing books about them. I won't waste another dollar on any of your books.


Hi Barbara,
I heard your interview on Pacifica Radio and went out and bought your book. I want to congratulate you for such a great read. I just told a friend of mine he has to buy it.

Matthew Pearl

Barbara Sher has been poking holes in the Positive Thinking myth since her 1979 book Wishcraft. Thank you for shedding more light on the damage it has done.

Forget positive. Let's get real, let's get together and let's get to work. "Isolation is the Dreamkiller, not your attitude."


Very good post.
I am Swedish and during the last 10-15 years we have got the same package of "overly positive thinking" over here, imported from the States of course, the; "you can do what you want, simply believe and it will come to you- phantasy". I hate it because it simpy stops us from doing something about the problems that are really there (or here) and second, because it also means that everything bad that happens to us is our own fault. This is simply not the case - most of the time. For most of all people there are always other people there stopping them from making their dreams come true, even to stop many of them them from eating enough.


I just saw Barbara speaking on c-span books, from the Politics & Prose bookstore I believe, about her newest book on the subject of positive thinking. And she discussed her experience of getting breast cancer years ago, and having people tell her to "think positive."

I just broke some bones this summer, and went through a similar experience of having everyone tell me how truly lucky I was to have this down (meaning unemployed with no income but enormous medical bills) time to regroup, think about my life. Lucky me.

Anyway, on the breast cancer, it's so odd that I had posted a similar comment on my own blog, link below about all the pink ribbons, the yogurt tops, etc., how annoying. Why doesn't our government do the research to find out why breast cancer risk has gone from a in 20 in 1950 to 1 in 8 today. Why don't we have free mammograms and free treatment for breast cancer, given that it is at epidemic levels, and given that it kills women every year. Anyway, here's the link. http://nabnyc.blogspot.com/2009/10/im-glad-more-men-are-getting-breast.html

Saundra Goodman

Finally, a kindred soul. Barbara, I can't wait to read your book BRIGHT-SIDED. I am a realist who was not appreciated at the job I held for 5 years before 1,400 of us were laid off across the country in January, 2009.

Until then, the corporate cry was “It's all good!” even when it wasn't. They said I was negative. I said I was a realist. One co-worker called me “the voice of reason.”

I wake up positive every day and then reality sets in. Take, for instance, the day I went to a work meeting on my day off and the elevator fell 3 floors with me and a co-worker in it. I lost 8 weeks of work, 6 of them in physical therapy, and still experience pain every day (over 5 years nows). This happened in November of my first year on the job. It wasn't Workers Comp because the elevator was on the property next door to the building I worked in. The elevator was a lemon, but it was a lemon in a building my company had a contract with so I became the problem, not the elevator. I was trapped in the same elevator 1-1/2 year later with another co-worker. HR said, “What is it with you and elevators?” Nobody said anything about the lemon elevator except my attorney.

I agree that “mass delusion” is an appropriate term. Pharmaceutical companies have been selling expensive designer drugs directly to consumers in their homes through television since the 80s and earning billions of dollars when people flock to their doctors demanding pills that “sell” them a problem-free, better day. Consumer beware is not a new term.

Perhaps today's “mass delusion” positive thinking is America's form of Aldous Huxley's BRAVE NEW WORLD, a soma-sprayed and controlled society.

We are sold everything including positive thinking. Bad things happen at work and not addressing them is psychologically damaging.

Corporate America wants us to pretend nothing is wrong when things are clearly wrong. I take pleasure in knowing there are others who cannot drink the Corporate Kool-Aid.

Saundra Goodman


Positive thinking is not the problem with our culture. If you truly want to understand the Neo-American culture of today, all one must do is watch Television commercials for just a few minuites.

NO we are not overly optimistic, the the true flaw is our LAZINESS. You can blame Oprah, self-help, Televangelists... but the true problem is that we all want something for nothing.

Frequently I hear countless peers and Americans brag about how much they make at their job while having to do so little. The American way of life is glorification laziness and sloth. We want to be couch potatos and let the rest of the world work.

The simple minded is optimistic and waits for some outside force to better their life through this positive thinking. This state of mind is still popular and effective because those who are truly able to think outside the box, have a positive self-efficacy. These people believe (and DO) make a difference in the world.

Think positively, because YOU are the only person who can make yourself feel good or bad about anything.

In conclusion, i believe that the personification of the Neo-American idea and craving of "Something for Nothing" is President Barrack Obama.


sra Barbara. Estoy scribiendo en spanish por no hablar english. Quiero saber si su libro será publicado en Brasil? Gracias por la atención.

Marjorie Homer

Hi, having listened to your comments on BBC's Start the Week, I would agree that the mis-guided attempts to correct 'faulty negative cognitions' replaces one oppression with another. Depression, anxiety etc are perhaps better viewed as emotional distress, rather than mental illness, and can be viewed as attempts to avoid negative emotions, rather than deal with them. Acknowledging negative emotions can help the bearer to deal with them, whereas insistence that they 'think positive' or they have 'asked for their problem' produces another negative emotion - guilt. How does making us feel bad about feeling bad, make us feel good?

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