Counting Our Blessings

Counting Our Blessings

Nov. 30 2004 4:30 PM

Counting Our Blessings


Charles Murray
8:23 a.m.  Tuesday  11/26/96

       Belle [Sawhill], you know that I think you're one of the most acute observers around, but on the matter of the " 'I've-got-mine-and-intend-to-keep-it' disease," I think you've got it wrong. In fact, I think this is one of the most fundamental misperceptions of everyone from your place on the mild center-left on out to the far left. The emotional power of the welfare issue goes to core issues of family as the building block of community, of the nurturing of children, rewarding those who act as responsible members of the community and punishing those who do not. I'm not saying that everything is sweetness and light. There is a lot of anger on the welfare issue--some of it the selfish kind--but to say that it is primarily a matter of selfish people or compassion fatigue is wrong. On this one, maybe my sampling base is better than yours, given that I hang out with more right-wingers than you do.

Isabel Sawhill
8:59 a.m.  Tuesday  11/26/96

       Charles, I don't disagree with you that concerns about the breakdown of the family and personal responsibility have fueled welfare reform. I even suspect that it is going to have more impact on the willingness to work and defer childbearing than most liberals are willing to admit. But my argument is that we need to put something in its place--not just cut taxes. How about fixing inner-city schools or providing more assistance to the working poor? What do your friends on the right want to do about poverty and its associated social ills? Do you (or they) believe that tightening up on welfare is sufficient to the task? I also believe that we haven't faced up to the reality that a big chunk (one-third?) of welfare recipients are simply not employable. What do we do with them and their children? I'd go for putting them in group homes or supervised settings of some kind, but that costs a lot more than what we're spending now.

Robert Samuelson
10:02 a.m.  Tuesday  11/26/96

       The confusing thing about happiness in America today is that most people (though obviously not all) are fairly content with their own lives but typically are unhappy with their "leaders," the nation's major institutions, and the direction "the country is headed." We credit ourselves for the good and blame some distant leader or institution for the bad. This is one way to reconcile Americans' traditional optimism and patriotism (which remains) with the consistently pessimistic tone of public debate and popular opinion on politics (which is real). One explanation for this collective split personality is the objective failings of leaders and institutions; no doubt they could do better in coping with problems, ranging from crime to budget deficits. Another cause, I have argued, is unrealistic expectations; in the first 25 years after World War II, we developed a vision of an America without serious economic or social problems in which almost everyone would achieve self-fulfillment--and now blame our leaders and institutions for not attaining this imagined future. But of course, no society could achieve this utopia, which is embodied in that wonderfully vague phrase "The American Dream." A third cause is that many people now think the country is rapidly succumbing to moral decay. Although I dislike many of the things deplored by these critics (family "breakdown," more public tolerance of language and visuals that--a few decades ago--would have been considered obscene, or worse, high crime), I suspect that the case for moral rot is overdone and that many traditional values (belief in hard work, commitment to children, religious faith) remain strong. Regardless, some of the things that critics condemn are the result of more freedoms--more freedom of speech, more freedom to divorce, etc. In modern America, personal freedoms and individual rights are blurred. This poses an enduring question of our democracy: how to determine when excessive individual rights harm the collective good. It is in this sense--and not just the matter of race to which Herb Stein refers--that we are prisoners of our history. (Anyone wanting a more extensive discussion of the connection between the vices and virtues of our national character should read American Exceptionalism: A Double-Edged Sword by Seymour Martin Lipset.)

Michael Elliott
1:13 p.m.  Tuesday  11/26/96

       My word, this is getting interesting. First, let me respond (as, I think, the only immigrant on the panel) to Belle Sawhill's suggestion that, by comparison with other countries, we're not doing as well as we think.
       She's quite right, of course, at least on some measures --violent crime (though not crimes against property), child health, the state of some parts of the inner city. I much enjoyed Nathan Glazer's recent piece in the New Republic on the differences between Minneapolis and Stockholm--a comparison that was not in Minneapolis' favor.
       Nonetheless, and at the risk of being Pollyannaish, if that's a word, let me add a querulous voice. It has long been an American habit, I think, to imagine that we enjoy triumphs or tragedies alone. We don't; but for most of the last 200 years, we have often enjoyed them first. True, there is no European city with which I am familiar which has the concentration of poverty and social pathologies seen in some American cities. But there are plenty of European cities that fear they are going that way--populations with weak attachment to the labor market, racial tension, and the like. Sandy Jencks once said (I paraphrase) that illegitimacy was not a black problem but an American one. In fact, it's a global one (at least, an advanced-industrial-economies one). The massive, and thoughtless, social experiment that we have adopted in our pattern of family formation in the last 20 years is being repeated all over northern Europe. (Charles Murray has written of this in the British context.) If illegitimacy really is a leading indicator of social pathologies--I suppose that is still not entirely proven--it may well turn out to be as troubling for the Europeans as it has been for Americans. And none of this even scratches the surface of the big problem: the inability of European economies to create jobs for all their workers--something on which Sam goes into autopilot--or to find entrepreneurs able and willing to build companies in the technologies of tomorrow (see Michael Prowse's valedictory to the United States in Monday's FT for a view of all this). So I conclude that, although there are certainly some reasons why I'd rather bring my kids up in the U.K. than the U.S., the balance is a fine one.
       Now, to Belle's invitation to think of matters of the spirit. As it happens, I've had a real-world test of the "good spiritedness" of modern America recently, because I moved house from the suburbs of Washington to those of New York. Everyone should try it. We were almost drowned in neighborliness, kindness, and a welcoming air. The school had a great program for making our kids feel at home, the street echoes to the sound of games each afternoon, etc., etc. OK, Westchester County isn't typical--but I suspect that the determination to be a "good neighbor" is as alive and well now as it was in the 1950s.
       Why, then, the sense that we're becoming increasingly atomized? A politically incorrect thought: Because so few mainstream journalists and opinion formers go to church. If Kinsley is reading this, he will be saying, "This is nuts: any moment now Elliott's going to endorse the idea that religion is stigmatized--this in a country where a Dukakis gets clobbered because he seems irreligious." Fair point: But if you never darken the door of a church, and few of my colleagues do, you'll never see just how much charity and generosity lurks in the heart of yer average American.

Herb Stein
2:16 p.m.  Tuesday  11/26/96

       The exchange between Sawhill and Murray suggests that we shall have to wait about 10 years before we know whether we should have been thankful today. It will take that long before we will know whether we should have been thankful that we abandoned the bad old welfare policies and embarked on a more constructive course, or should have been mournful that we turned in a direction that only made a bad problem worse.
       Elliott offers us the consolation that what we think of as America's problems are rapidly becoming the problems of Western Europe. Are these problems inevitably the consequence of affluence or, as some say, of individualism and rationalism? Is there some previous state that anyone would like to go back to? Elliott mentions the magic word "church," but refers to it only as a place where one can see how much charity and generosity lurks in the heart of the average American. But church in that sense stands only for a sense of community, such as one might find in a book-discussion group or bowling league, and not for anything specifically religious. Is that all there is to it?
       Samuelson remarks on the contrast between the general satisfaction of Americans with their own lives and the dissatisfaction with their leaders. But when they had a chance, they re-elected all the old leaders. And even the alternatives they were offered were not very different. They are dissatisfied with the government. But doesn't the fact that they are satisfied with their lives, even though dissatisfied with the government, reflect a realization that the government doesn't--and probably can't--make much difference to them? And since the Cold War is over and the Depression is long gone, isn't that realization correct? Maybe we should be thankful that we have come to understand that.
       On the subject of being satisfied with one's own life and dissatisfied with the state of the country, a recent survey of what the public thinks about the economy is instructive. The public estimate of the rate of unemployment is 20.6 percent, and of the rate of inflation, 13.5 percent. Seventy percent of the public believes that the federal budget deficit is higher than it was five years ago. Can it be that the public's perception of the state of the world is the result of sheer ignorance? And whose fault is that