Back in June, BusinessWeek announced that it would put out a special issue on "The Case for Optimism" this August, explaining that it's just as rational to see the economic glass as half-full as it is to view it as half-empty, so why not embrace the positive and enthuse our way to a recovery?
I can't imagine that the magazine's editors still feel quite so upbeat, given that in July, BusinessWeek parent McGraw-Hill Cos. (NYSE:MHP) put the pub up for sale and bankers immediately predicted that it would fetch about $1. Still, the magazine must go on, and BusinessWeek's long-awaited feel-good issue hit newsstands this week, as planned. It's done little to brighten my mood.
The problem (aside from imagining how dreadful it must have been for BusinessWeek staffers to work on an issue whose cover line could've easily been "Don't Worry, Be Happy" as their magazine languished on the auction block) is that it really doesn't make a case for optimism at all. There's not much here in the way of positive news or economic indicators or any other factors that point to a recovery taking hold anytime soon; instead we're simply admonished to be optimistic because it feels good and it's a good thing to do. "Prudence demands that you prepare yourself for all possible outcomes, including some highly positive ones," the issue's main article instructs.
It then provides us with a few examples of people who have embraced the downturn, including Mary Pruitt, a laid-off project manager who sunk her entire severance payment and 401(k) into a company that's working to reduce cancer-causing particulates in emissions from diesel engines. "We're not advising people to pour their life savings into automotive gadgets," the article explains. Well, that's a relief. But BusinessWeek does want us to keep in mind that risk-takers like Pruitt "are responsible for a fair share of scientific and technological advances."
Other stars of the piece include two former Walt Disney Co. (NYSE:DIS) execs who left their jobs to launch a company that measures the effectiveness of Internet advertising "at the height of the financial crisis." Instead of changing their plans, "they stuck it out" and are now "just about ready for prime time." Go optimism! We're also reminded that Bill Gates dropped out of Harvard to co-found Microsoft Corp. (NASDAQ:MSFT) while the nation was "still mired in the recession of 1973-75." And then there's Lawrence Brilliant, who worked in the 1970s on a successful effort to eradicate smallpox, a disease that had killed hundreds of millions. "After that, how could you not be an optimist?" it quotes Brilliant as asking.
I understand Brilliant's optimism, but what exactly does it mean for people suffering through the recession? Hey, poor reader, you might have lost your job, your savings or your home, but cheer up: Smallpox has been cured. As for the story's other examples -- Pruitt, the Disney guys, Gates -- there are always going to be people who profit from or innovate during bad times, and that's great. But the media's propensity to offer this group up as some sort of silver lining to our economic crisis is getting pretty tiresome, like that other media-fueled recession myth about how we're all better people now that we have to make do with less. Really, it's enough to turn an optimist into a pessimist.
Yvette Kantrow is executive editor for The Deal LLC.