U-M business experts share insights on vibes, tribes and effects on attitudes toward economy, election

February 16, 2024


There is the economy, and there are feelings about the economy. Objective measures don’t line up with subjective opinion, yet outward expressions of inward beliefs seem to matter more than ever.

Three business experts from the University of Michigan—Sarah Miller, Marcus Collins and Erik Gordon—survey the effect of individual vibes and cultural tribes on consumers’ attitudes toward the economy, brand loyalty and the election. They look at some of the ways these trends played out in the past year and how they could evolve in the year ahead.

Gordon, Miller and Collins also are among the faculty advisers for the Financial Times-Michigan Ross Poll, which tracks how voters perceive financial and economic issues in the run-up to the 2024 U.S. presidential election. They appeared on the latest episode of the podcast Business & Society, a joint production of the Ross School of Business and Michigan News. Excerpts are below.

Sarah Miller:

“One thing that we see is that young people are saying they’re more dissatisfied with the economy, even though elderly people tend to be the ones more objectively hurt by inflation since they’re not in the labor market and they’re not experiencing the increased earnings. Actually, earnings have grown faster than inflation. So people who are working and experiencing these earnings gains should be feeling better off. And yet they’re not.

“And it’s also young people that are most likely to say they’re getting their news from TikTok or they’re getting their news and they’re learning about the economy from TikTok or Instagram or other social media sites, whereas older people tend to report in our poll that they’re getting their news from more traditional sources. So I think there is a tension there.

“And I do think that this idea of the ‘vibe-cession’—the feeling that you’re economically worse off than what the data actually are showing, is a short-term phenomenon. And usually, there’s inflation. People aren’t happy. But prices can only go one way, or at least if things are working as intended prices are only going one way.

“People adjust to the new price levels. Earnings adjust to the new price levels. And people equilibrate. And I think there is an optimistic future in 2024 as inflation continues to be low. People’s earnings are high. And I think the feelings about the economy and the reality of the economy are going to come closer together.”

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Marcus Collins:

“On the marketing side, I think that the biggest trend is tribalism. Tons of tribalism with regard to commerce. I mean, you saw Taylor Swift, Beyonce and Barbie have a tremendous summer. One would argue they were the summer. And these consumption behaviors had little to do with the category, right? Beyonce, Barbie and Taylor Swift—they all represent something, stand for something beyond the category, they transcend it.

“And the people who see the world similarly, who subscribe to this ideological representation that they signify they engage in commerce as an expression, right? It’s an outward expression of inward beliefs.

“We see it in commerce. We see it in politics with the tribal-based political behavior, the discourse not being about legislative ideas but being about social perspective, about how the world should operate that’s being driven or predicated on our cultural subscriptions.

“So this notion of tribes, of community, of networks of people who share a similar perspective on the world—these things are informing how we consume, where we go, how we vote, how we show up in the world, how we navigate the phenomenal world that we’ll call society.”

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Erik Gordon:

“So we’ve asked a lot of questions about the economy. Turns out that virtually everybody, any age, either political party, their biggest issue in this election is the economy followed by immigration.

“What are they concerned about in the economy? I would’ve thought job loss, because if you lose your job that’s pretty traumatic. Now, inflation is No. 1. Job loss is a little bit down the thing, maybe because the job market has been so good, but what does inflation mean?

“The (consumer price index) numbers show that the rate of inflation, the rate of increase in pricing, has gone down still a little higher than everybody’s targets, but it has really gone down—huge progress there. In the poll, you don’t see anything like that.

“So my question to the government is, do you need a new CPI? What does it actually measure? I mean, I do know what it measures. You can look it up, but customers see inflation through the lens of their own lives. So they see it through their visit to the grocery store, their visit to the gas station or the drug store.

“When you say to somebody, ‘But the CPI number says this,’ they just look at you and say, ‘Well, I don’t care what the CPI number says. All I can say is inflation is up.’

“Inflation is not up, prices are up. And are they conflating inflation with price level. Price level is not what the price level was two years ago or five years ago. But if they think that prices have to go down before we’ve conquered inflation, they’re gonna wait a long time, right?”

Contact: [email protected]

Business & Society is co-produced by JT Godfrey of the Ross School of Business and Jeff Karoub of Michigan News. The audio engineer is Jonah Brockman. Listen to all episodes of the podcast here.