Three people are stranded on an island: A physicist, and chemist, and an economist. They have one can of food, but no way of opening it.
The physicist chimes in: He can build a catapult and smash the can open.
The chemist adds his idea: Some combination of acids might melt the lid off the can.
Then the economist figures it all out: Guys, this is so easy. Let's just assume we have a can opener.
True stuff. Finance people use dense theories and inane assumptions to solve problems, if only to prove their ideas’ worth. Earlier this year, former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan wrote a paper packed with Greek symbols and wild assumptions, all trying to calculate what, exactly, was holding back businesses. I suggested a different approach. He could have just asked them. There are plenty of reputable surveys showing exactly why companies are glum: Sales are poor. That's it. No Greek required.
Surveys are, of course, fallible. Who gets asked determines everything, and how it's asked sways results. Still, wherever possible, asking people how they feel is preferable to guessing or assuming. In that spirit, here are 20 surveys from reputable sources that sum up the economy:
20. 58% of companies expect to hire more part-time and temporary workers over the next five years, and 22% expect more "outsourced or offshore" workers.
19. 62% of Americans want the federal government to spend more on education, but education was the only major federal program to see a spending cut in 2009.
18. Nearly 30% of homes are underwater, but only 15% of homeowners think their home is worth less than they paid for it.
17. 40% of working Americans don't think they'll ever be able to retire.
16. 57% of Americans say that, in financial terms, they are achieving the American dream.
15. More unemployed postgraduates consider their lives "thriving" (54%) than employed people with only a high school degree or less education (51%).
14. 50% of Americans think taxes are too high. That number has averaged 56% since the 1940s.
13. 4% of Americans think the federal taxes they pay are too low. That's the highest it's ever been.
12. 39% say the country can go past Aug. 2 -- the day the Treasury says it will default on its debt without raising the debt ceiling -- without major economic problems.
11. 60% of homeowners say a major reason they bought a home is because they think it will make a good retirement investment.
10. 62% of workers don't have an emergency cash fund.
9. 50% of Americans would struggle to come up with $2,000 in 30 days for an emergency.
8. According to the Tax Policy Center: Three-quarters of Americans believe that entitlement programs such as Medicare and Social Security “will create major economic problems” over the next 25 years. But two-thirds are opposed to addressing these challenges by reducing benefits, and 56% are against raising taxes.
7. 74% of Americans think economic problems are the most important problems facing the country (up from 16% in 2007).
6. Despite an absolutely wrecked economy, just 16% of Zimbabweans say they are finding it very difficult to get by, while 18% say they are comfortable on their current income.
5. 66% of Americans want politicians who represent their views to vote for a debt ceiling compromise, even if it is a plan they disagree with.
4. 63% of Americans think the federal government spends more on foreign aid and defense than Medicare and Social Security (it's not even close -- the latter is nearly half a trillion more per year).
3. 30% of small businesses say poor sales are their single most important problem.
2. High school students scored an average of 48% on a test of very basic personal finance questions.
1. Nearly 20% say they have "little or no idea where their money goes each month."
How do these apply to you? Sound off below.
Check back every Tuesday and Friday for Morgan Housel's columns on finance and economics.