Christina Patterson: Optimism is the last thing we need in a politician

The US, built on a dream of prosperity for all, has inequality on a par with Rwanda

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The Independent Online

At last, some good news. New research confirms what some of us have always known: optimists are deranged. The research, it's true, doesn't put it quite like that. The research, published in a journal called Nature Neuroscience, and conducted at University College, London, said that optimists "retain a positive outlook even in the face of evidence to the contrary". If, for example, they're told that their risk of getting cancer is higher than they thought, then they adjust their estimate of their own risk a tiny bit, but not in line with the true figures. If they're told that their risk is lower, they make their estimate of their own risk much lower than for everyone else. Brain scans of their frontal lobes show that they just reject "negative thoughts". Which is as near as a scientific study will ever get to saying that they're a bunch of fruitcakes.

For those of us who haven't been able to hear the words "I'm an optimist" without a strong desire to wipe a smirk off a shiny, pink face, it's a bit of a relief. Yes, we know about the studies that show optimists are more likely to live longer, have good relationships and achieve their goals than the people they call pessimists and we call realists. Eighty per cent of people, according to this study, are optimists, so no wonder a high proportion of prospective partners and employers are attracted by the shining eyes and crazed grins that make them feel so at home. There's strong evidence, too, that immune systems are also part of this cosy cult, scaring off infections with their happy, clappy charm.

But a country is not a boyfriend, an immune system or an employer, and the successful running of a country, or of an economy, or of a foreign policy, or of an employment strategy, involves a little bit more than positive thinking, and charm. On Friday, we celebrated, though that isn't quite the word, 10 years of a war that was launched on an abstract concept, and conducted in a country where that abstract concept seemed to thrive. Wars on abstract concepts don't always go too well, and this one could clearly go on gobbling up our young men, and our taxes, for many years to come. And now, even the former commander of the forces fighting it has admitted that they had a "frighteningly simplistic" understanding of the country, and that they didn't know the country's history, or culture, or languages, and didn't bother to learn.

That war was launched by a man who boasted that he was an optimist, and who thought the world would bend to his world view. He thought Iraq would bend to his world view, too, and that speaking under a banner saying "mission accomplished" would mean that the mission was accomplished, even if the mission, like the vision, like the plans for reconstruction, were made largely of hot air. He was supported, in both wars, which have killed several hundred thousand people, by a man who marked his election victory with a song that told us that things could only get better.

Things can get better, of course, but I don't think you could really switch on the news, and hear about the men who are dying every day, in a war that only a few demented generals think we can win, and hear about the latest British Chamber of Commerce figures, which show that the economy is doing much worse than everyone expected, and hear about the new study from the Institute of Fiscal Studies, which predicts that nearly a quarter of British children will be living in poverty by the end of the decade, and think that things can only get better. Only a psychopath wouldn't hope they will, but the evidence, whether or not it registers on the frontal lobes, is that they can nearly always get an awful lot worse. It's the country built on a dream of prosperity for all, that now has levels of inequality on a par with Rwanda, levels of inequality that are bigger than they were in 1928. The wealthiest one per cent of Americans now own more than a third of the country's wealth. The poorest 50 per cent own less than three per cent of it. More than 45 million Americans are now on food stamps. There are more than 24m people in America who can't find a full-time job. No wonder there are protests on Wall Street.

And it's the southern European countries, who put off worries about manana until a manana which never comes, which are in the biggest mess of all. We all like a bit of sangria and sunshine. We all like a retsina in a sun-lit square. We'd all like to retire early, and fiddle our taxes, and swap a boring afternoon in the office for a nice siesta. We'd all like the macho men who promised boom for ever to be right. But they weren't right, and you can't sip sangria in the sunshine and also pay for your pension.

It's the northern Europeans, the sunshine-starved, cautious northern Europeans, who have kept their house in order and their economies strong, and who have ensured that a reasonable standard of living for most of their citizens isn't just a dream. It's the northern Europeans who know that Bob Marley anthems have their place, but it isn't in economic planning.

Everything ain't gonna be alright, or at least not without some radical change. Bring me sunshine, by all means. Bring me a "can-do optimist" prime minister if you must, but please also bring me a man (or a woman) with a proper plan.

c.patterson@independent.co.uk;

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