Things could be worse; we could be living anywhere else.

Yes, we have big problems. Way too many people are out of work, federal and state budget deficits are frightful, infrastructure is crumbling, terrorists still have us in their cross-hairs, and the highest priority of most of our politicians is to fill their coffers with enough money to get re-elected. Making matters worse, I’m a Cubs fan.

Despite all this, I remain an optimist. With the Cubs, there’s always the promise of next season. For the USA, adversity always brings out our best. That’s why I don’t pay attention to the legions of pundits who blather about us as a society in decline.

Compared to what? A knee-jerk response from a lot of them is, China! In a decade or so they may well overtake us as the world’s biggest economy, and many people who should know better even admire their politics. Sure, they’re a bit repressive, goes the thinking, but they’re a lot better than they used to be and not nearly as bad as spooky regimes like North Korea or Iran. When the Chinese want to get something done, nothing stands in their way, or so gush these useful idiots.

Well, I would not care to exchange our country’s problems for China’s. Fast as their economy is growing, they still can’t provide employment for hundreds of millions of citizens who eke out a Third World existence, and more hundreds of millions of Chinese who do have jobs make a Wal-Mart greeter look tycoonish by comparison. China harbors the world’s worst pollution and is in a mad global scramble for food, energy and other resources to sustain their growth. China’s decades-old crackdown on population growth has set the stage for a demographic nightmare in years to come.

What about the oh-so-genteel Europeans, then? The Euro has overtaken the dollar as the world’s heftiest currency, and the EU is -or until recently, was - thought by many to be the wave of the future as the world’s pre-eminent political and economic force.

Now EU city streets are filled with spoiled brats trashing and burning to protest the relatively mild cutbacks enacted to come to grips with their fiscal crisis. In fact, Europeans are more pessimistic than we are about future prospects.

A Financial Times/Harris Poll taken in December 2009, even before the worst of the EU’s problems came to light, asked people about their standards of living today and in the future. Adults in the U.S. led the pack in identifying themselves as better off today than 10 years ago (44%), as well as being optimistic about the new decade (43%). By comparison, 44% of French adults and 36% of Britons are pessimistic about the future (compared with 33% of Americans).

When the question was framed in terms of “… do you expect your (own family’s) standard of living to improve, stay the same or get worse?” - the U.S. once again led the pack with 39% of respondents saying it would be better.

This survey reveals an aspect of the American character that has been demonstrated time and time again throughout history. For all our problems, and for all the resentment from the international community, deep down inside most people around the world recognize that the U.S. still offers more opportunity than anywhere else to forge a better life, whether that entails making money, stimulating the intellect or pursuing any other passion. That’s why so many illegal immigrants risk their lives to eke out even a meager existence within our borders.

Our gloomy economy over the last couple of years has been the worst of my lifetime and most of yours, at least over an extended period. But let’s not forget the terrible months during fall 2001 when the events of 9/11 sent financial markets reeling and the pundits babbling of another Great Depression. Here’s what I wrote in October 2001 in response:

“ … economics is a social science driven by peoples’ confidence in the future … nobody knows whether the bad times will last for months or years, but I think it will be shorter than most people fear. The darkest hours are before the dawn.”

Sure enough, by the first quarter of 2002 we were in recovery, and it picked up steam all the way until 2008. I say we’re going to be surprised again by the strength of the next recovery, which may already be underway.