Economy Feeling Lousy, Feeling Great

How do American consumers feel? Hard to tell.

Accepted economic wisdom holds that no recovery is possible without confident consumers. Their shopping sprees account for two-thirds of all business activity. So it makes sense to find out what this vital sector of the economy is up to these days. But what doesn't necessarily make sense is the answer.

Early last week, the Conference Board, the New York City-based business- research group that measures consumer confidence each month, shocked economists and politicians alike with a report that its index plummeted 4 points in February, to 46.3. That is its lowest level since 1974, when the nation was gripped by the...