Counting Our Blessings

Counting Our Blessings

Nov. 30 2004 4:29 PM

Counting Our Blessings

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Robert Samuelson
8:43 a.m.  Monday  11/25/96

       We are probably living through the best period since World War II, though hardly anyone seems to realize it. By this, I don't mean that we have no problems or conflicts. We have plenty (crime, poverty, political polarization, drugs, dissent over race, immigration, and moral issues--from abortion to school prayer). What I do mean is that life for most Americans is pretty good--better than at any time in the past half century--and that if we could somehow ensure that our present condition (flaws and all) would endure indefinitely, we'd be a mighty lucky nation. We are not at war and are not now threatened by any foreign power. Our economy is performing strongly. Almost any qualified worker who wants a job can, with perseverance, get one. Living standards are rising for most Americans, though sometimes slowly and imperceptibly, and are now higher than at any time in our history. We enjoy unprecedented personal freedoms, perhaps (as some social critics suggest) too many. The word "lifestyle," which has come into common usage only in the past quarter century, conveys the range of personal choices that most Americans now take for granted.
       Exactly what period since World War II would we reasonably exchange for the present one? Certainly not the 1960s, when the country was torn by the civil rights struggle, Vietnam, and campus protest. Some of these conflicts (civil rights) were necessary and had desirable consequences; others (Vietnam) were simply a vast national tragedy. This was not a time of social peace, nor--despite a long economic boom--a period of greater economic well-being than today. The elderly are better off now than then, because Congress created Medicare in 1965 and gradually improved the generosity of Social Security. The poor are better off, because Congress created Medicaid, food stamps, and the Earned Income Tax Credit. How about the 1950s, then? They were certainly better than the 1940s (World War II) or the 1930s (the Great Depression), which is why they seemed so good at the time. But they weren't better than the 1990s. Living standards were much lower, racial segregation was legal in the South and practiced elsewhere, there was the Korean War (U.S. dead: 54,246) and McCarthyism. As for the 1970s and 1980s, it's no contest. The 1970s had a severe recession, two episodes of double-digit inflation, and Watergate. The 1980s started with the worst recession since World War II (peak monthly unemployment: 10.8 per cent)--probably the only way of ending double-digit inflation.
       I am not suggesting that we be complacent about our problems; but I am saying that we should place them in broader perspective. Some of our present concerns stem from the past successes. We debate middle-class "entitlements," precisely because Social Security and Medicare exist and are generous. We debate affirmative action, women's "rights" and gay "rights," precisely because many overt discriminations of the past have been outlawed. We wonder whether some of our anti-poverty programs may perversely perpetuate poverty by reducing the incentives to work or to marry, precisely because there is a social safety net. All these issues are legitimate subjects of debate, but they are problems and not "crises" (an overworked word). We do not live in the best of all possible worlds, and I hope my children will live in a better one. But if I could guarantee them the one we've already got, I gladly would.

Isabel Sawhill
9:37 a.m.  Monday  11/25/96

       As we gather together over the holiday, we should give thanks for living in the most prosperous and democratic country in the world. Some of us, of course, have more blessings to count than others. (My own would overflow the Internet.) But we seem to be in no mood to share our good fortune with others. Rather, we have just elected a president and a Congress who have stripped $54 billion out of programs for the poor over the next six years and are intent on using the proceeds to pay for a tax cut for the rest of us. I intend to use mine to buy a cellular phone, a bread machine, and a stair-climber--all of which, you understand, I do need.
       The cellular phone will provide much-needed protection from the too-frequent muggings in my neighborhood. The bread machine, with all its comforting aromas, will remind me of the socially tranquil 1950s, and the stair-stepper is my antidote to all those designer muffins they force you to eat at power breakfasts in the nation's capital. I lead a hard life.
       The muggings are the worst of it. In my affluent white neighborhood, we assume they are committed by young black men who are the fathers of all those children on welfare. Perhaps if we felt safer on the street, we wouldn't need a tax cut and would feel more charitable toward the poor. But, as it is, most of us have caught the "I've-got-mine-and-intend-to-keep-it" disease, which fuels uncaring political acts, which, in turn, produce more crime and other social pathologies. Such political acts are not just niggardly; they are uncharitable and unworthy of a rich country. They remind me of my great-aunt, who, despite her great wealth, bought my Christmas presents at the five-and-dime. I didn't feel loved and, as a consequence, often behaved badly.
       Please don't misunderstand me. I'm not arguing for bringing back welfare as we used to know it. It was antiwork and antifamily and distressingly bureaucratic. But let's not pretend that retreating into our kitchens to bake bread is going to solve these problems either. Compared to 376 years ago, we have made enormous material progress. But in matters of the spirit, we still have a long way to go.

Michael Elliott
11:02 a.m.  Monday  11/25/96

       I enjoy Thanksgiving as much as the next person, but there's something about it that's always bothered me--and which seems relevant to our discussion. To wit: it's fine to count our blessings, and we should. But part of America's problem, it seems to me, is precisely that its happiness (or the lack of it) is so often thought of as a gift of providence--a blessing, if you will. Of course, at one level, this is true--I mean true in a nonreligious way. That is to say, what economists call the "endowment" of the United States--an all but empty continent when the Europeans first arrived, vast mineral deposits, virgin land, and so on--was spectacular; truly something for which we should be thankful. But if we come to think that the state of our nation is in the gift of providence, we discount all the other factors that have made America great--like hard work.
       I've long been interested by the similarities between the United States and Australia. Both countries that span a continent, both made by immigrants, both oceans away from Old World instability. But the Ozzies don't assume that it was God, providence, or anybody else that gave them their good fortune: they simply think that they were "lucky," and call their country "the lucky country."
       I think that's wise. Luck can run out, and the sense that it can do so keeps one on one's toes. Providential goodwill, on the other hand, is something that one can come to believe will just keep on being bestowed, so long as one deserves it. I suppose what I'm driving at is this: Americans have never been particularly good at coping with those periods in their history when things went less than splendidly--like the 1960s and 1970s. Precisely because they have come to feel that they deserve a constant supply of bounty from heaven, they are mystified when, for a time, it dries up. They wander around, crying woe and "the sky is falling" when times aren't woeful and the sky is doing nothing of the sort. That was how America was in the late 1980s and early 1990s--a source of considerable annoyance to both Samuelson and myself. Hence, our books. (I speak for myself only, of course, not for Sam.)

Charles Murray
11:52 a.m.  Monday  11/25/96

       I suppose everyone else will make the same point, but it has to be the first thing to be said on Thanksgiving week: We are living in a country with a level of abundance, good fortune, and dumb luck on such a lavish scale that (thinking of my generation) it must be true that God looks after fools and children.
       Security from war? Britain's international dominance in the 19th century doesn't compare. You have to go back to the Pax Romana to find a worldwide military supremacy on the same scale as America's today.
       Health? Take any dimension you want to use, from infant mortality to geriatric care, and our health has never been as good. That goes for the poorest and the uninsured segments of the population as well as everyone else. Shelter, food, and other basic needs? Our current median income purchases a lifestyle that, by the standards of earlier ages--and that of most of the rest of the world's population today--is opulent. The purchasing power of an income at the poverty level is roughly equivalent to the median income in 1900, when America was already the envy of the world. It is possible to live in squalor in this country, but you have to work at it.
       Self-fulfillment? What I'm doing right now and all that goes with it--I'm referring to the computer revolution--has broadened my options and autonomy in ways that have fundamentally altered my life for the better in just the last decade; never mind all the other ways that technology has opened up the world over the course of my lifetime. What is true for me is true of most people who are computer literate.
       Bread and circuses? I needn't spell that one out.
       The complaints of Americans in the last decade of the 20th century, including my own in the week to come, are, in the grand scheme of things, the mewling of spoiled children.

Herb Stein
1:55 p.m.  Monday  11/25/96

       Well, we are a happy bunch! I look forward to the complaints that Murray explicitly--and the others implicitly--promises us.
       Elliott thinks Americans tend to attribute their blessings to providence. Surely there is much to that. But I think there was much more to that in the early days, when providence was written with a capital P, than there is today. It seems to me that we now have a tendency to attribute our blessings to special qualities in us--not only hard work but also courage, love of liberty, compassion, and so on. Of course, it might have been providence that gave us those qualities, but once we had them, we did the rest on our own. I think of Clinton's formulation of the American Dream--that if you work hard and play by the rules, all good things will be awarded to you.
       Also, the reference to higher authority did not always provide confidence in a happy future. In his second inaugural address, Lincoln said: "Yet, if God wills that it [the Civil War] continue until all the wealth piled up by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn by the lash shall be paid by another drawn by the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still must it be said 'the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether' " Of course, Lincoln was not our cheeriest president, but his words are a reminder that our history has not been altogether blessed and that providence has not always looked so benign. Also, they raise the question of whether, in some aspects of our lives, we are not still paying for our sins.

Isabel Sawhill
2:58 p.m.  Monday  11/25/96

       All of us seem to be taking a historical perspective--understandable at this time of year, but not the whole story. Suppose instead we were to compare ourselves to other advanced nations. Our public spaces; our rates of crime, infant mortality, and teen pregnancy; and our schooling are just some of the areas where we don't begin to measure up--despite our affluence. Some of this, to be sure, is because we are a large and heterogeneous country, but this alone can't begin to explain all the differences.