The Gross National Character

Allen and Stein

The Gross National Character

Allen and Stein

The Gross National Character
An email conversation about the news of the day.
Sept. 14 1998 3:51 PM

Allen and Stein

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Jodie,

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You raise an interesting point about the accuracy of the press in reporting on the Monica case. It just shows that the press doesn't have enough imagination to make up scenarios more outrageous than the ones Clinton acted out in real life.

I too am puzzled by the reaction, or lack of it, from the American people, although the latest polls do show a little drop in Clinton's approval rating. He has managed to position himself as the champion of the people and the victim of all establishment figures, including the press. Of course, the people "out there" are not following this story as much as you and I. I don't think the people who are getting their news from TV are getting the full flavor of the story, unless they are watching the late night shows, like Jay Leno.

I am reminded of the old story about Abraham Lincoln and U.S. Grant. When some people complained that Grant was drinking Lincoln replied that he would send the same liquor to all his generals. Maybe the people are saying that every President should have a Monica, if that keeps unemployment and inflation low.

Why has the stock market risen in the few days since the Starr report came out? Possibly because investors think the report will generate Republican gains in the House and Senate in the coming election, enough to permit the Republicans to over-ride a Presidential veto. Then the Republicans can cut taxes to their heart's content, and at the top of their list would be a cut in the capital-gains tax.

As for the $80 billion tax cut, over 5 years, that the Congressional Republicans have "unveiled" (was the tax cut ever veiled) that's almost too small to talk about. It's less than two-tenths of a percent of the GDP or about 1 percent of Federal revenues. I cherish my reputation as being against all tax cuts, but I can't work up any emotion about this one.

Incidentally, there should be a surge in Federal revenues next year as a result of the capital gains investors took during the big sell-off in the market during July and August.

Is the national character improving? I don't know. There is no statistic on the Gross National Character. I think you have to distinguish between standards and character. At least, I think of standards as the ideas of proper behavior that people have and character as the consistency with which they conform to those ideas. Surely the standards have changed in the past, say, fifty years. In my view some of these changes were improvements--including the standards for behavior towards women, blacks, Jews and homosexuals. In my view some of these changes were deteriorations--including behavior towards marriage and towards drug abuse. One might almost say that our standards of public behavior have improved and our standards of private behavior have worsened. Whether character in the sense of consistent adherence to our standards has changed, I do not know.

Anyway, suppose we could net this all out, what would be the point? Do we want to give ourselves a medal for good character, or immigrate to a country where character is better? Let's look at those aspects of our standards and character that should be improved and see what we can do about it.

Jodie T. Allen is Slate's Washington, D.C., editor. Herbert Stein, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, was chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers under Presidents Nixon and Ford. He is a member of the board of contributors at the Wall Street Journal.