Counting Our Blessings

Counting Our Blessings

Nov. 30 2004 4:32 PM

Counting Our Blessings

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Isabel Sawhill
8:37 a.m.  Monday  12/2/96

       There seems to be a near-consensus in this group that things aren't as bad as the public, in its ignorance or churlishness, thinks. Some of the fault, I think, lies with the media's taste for bad news over good and politics over substance, but it is also human nature to define problems in relative terms. In this sense, problems can never disappear, only change faces.
       One new problem is the growing proportion of births out of wedlock. Elliott suggests that perhaps the United States is leading the world toward Gomorrah--with illegitimacy rates as the prime exhibit. I was at a conference recently where Alice Rossi, one of our leading family sociologists, argued that marriage, as an institution, is not just dying but terminally ill. I hope (and tend to believe) she is wrong, but still I worry about the next generation. Consider the following statistic: 45 percent of all first births in the United States are to women who are either unmarried, teenagers, or lacking a high-school degree. Charles Murray and I could have our favorite debate about the role of the welfare system in all of this, but even he, I suspect, would not put the entire blame there. Samuelson suggested another possible culprit: our overemphasis in this country on individual rights at the expense of community or family responsibilities, a view that I and many communitarians share. Maybe we have some consensus on this point?

Michael Elliott
8:46 a.m.  Monday  12/2/96

       The moderator has, in effect, asked those of us who think we are relatively happy to think again--or at least, to contemplate the possibility that others aren't. Fair enough. He's plainly right that many Americans do not live lives that most of us would choose, that they are confronted each day with poverty, crime, and--certainly --racism. What should those of us on the sunny side of the argument think and do about this?
       I think we should start by acknowledging that there are deep cleavages within American society--ones shaped by race, ethnicity, and, increasingly, class. If anything, it's class that worries me most (though class in America is, of course, overlaid by race and ethnicity.) However you cut the economic figures, however optimistic you are about them, it's hard to avoid the conclusion that old-fashioned working-class jobs--the sort that used to pay unskilled workers $18 an hour--are in decline, and that the future direction of the economy will put an even higher premium on skills and education. One response is to repeat, like a mantra, "invest in education and training." So we should. But I've seen little evidence that any possible level of such investment will do much for the 40- to 50-year-olds whose skill-levels are weak, or whose skills have become redundant. What worries me most about America's future is the possibility that we will become a society in which there are real and growing class divisions. It would take someone more optimistic than I to believe that, in those circumstances, political and social cohesion could continue without any ameliorating agency. (Or, to be precise, amelioration that went beyond private charity and "good-neighborliness.")
       At this point, I part company with one part of "optimist" conventional wisdom, which I might characterize as follows: The modern federal government was created to cope with overlapping crises--economic catastrophe; war, hot or cold; and the battle for civil rights--which lasted from the 1930s to the late 1980s. Those crises are over; ergo, the federal government's role in the nation can and should be reduced. There is, I would contend, no political nostrum in America today so widely accepted as the virtues of devolution of government services to the state and local level.
       I think all that needs treating with skepticism. This is still a single nation-state. It has values in common. I greatly fear that the current trend of devolution--shown, for example, in welfare reform--risks stretching to the breaking point the ties that bind us together. I do not have the faith in the effectiveness or competence of sub-federal government that others seem to blindly accept. And I wonder how long it will be before we need an effective federal government to lead a national crusade against some as yet dimly perceived social crisis--but find that we have demonized and emasculated Washington so much that it is unable to perform the tasks it once did.

Isabel Sawhill
9:20 a.m.  Monday  12/2/96

       Herb Stein asks us to think about where our blessings come from. I suspect that most of us would agree that they are partly the result of our own efforts and partly the result of external factors over which we have no control. In the latter category go the country and era in which we were born, our genetic makeup, the kind of family in which we are raised, and just plain luck. In the former category, I would include how hard we work--both in school and later--the way in which we use available resources, etc., and then immediately admit that there is no hard and fast line between the two categories. For example, some families teach good work habits, and others don't.
       Bob Samuelson is right that Americans, in contrast to Europeans, believe we can control our own destinies and thus are less supportive of a redistributive state. But I wonder if the latest round of welfare reform in this country is only about discriminating between the deserving and the undeserving poor. If that were all that was involved, why wouldn't we have reinvested the savings from the welfare bill in programs for the working poor? Why did Congress propose to cut the Earned Income Tax Credit (beyond tightening up on its administration)? Why are we not doing more to curb middle-class entitlements or rebalance tax burdens so that we can invest more in those who most need it and are also "deserving"? Let's keep in mind that the distribution of income in this country is much more unequal than it used to be and than it is in other countries. In short, it's not just the welfare poor whom we should be discussing. Part of the problem is that this relatively small, often dysfunctional, group and some of their allies on the left have poisoned the political atmosphere for the rest of the population who are playing by the rules but who don't live in the kind of comfort that most of us on this panel seem to enjoy.

Charles Murray
9:48 a.m.  Monday  12/2/96

       Where were we? Thanksgiving wreaks havoc on memory, and maybe even on IQ. Trying to pick up the pieces:
       Proposition: The nation's counting of its blessings and anti-blessings is out of whack with reality.
       Explanations: Michael Elliott's and Bob Samuelson's insights about the uniqueness of the post-1945 world seem on-target to me. So does Elliott's experience with callers on the talk shows about journalists. But doesn't part of this (and forgive me if Elliott and Samuelson have already made this point in their writings, and I missed it) also have to do with an evolution and perversion of the classical liberal concept of progress?
       In the 19th century, the idea of progress, then a very new idea, carried with it, usually implicitly, the notion of perfectibility. There might still be sprawling slums, but society was on a trajectory that would eventually find solutions to these problems, and the slums would shrink and eventually disappear; and so also with other social problems. A direct descendent of the notion of perfectibility animated much of the social policy enthusiasms of the 1960s.
       Since the mid-1970s, cynicism and pessimism have spread in all parts of the political spectrum, but the notion of perfectibility has left this trace: When we assess where we are, we tend to compare the situation with a zero-problem ideal. Perfection. If something goes wrong, whether it is a child who is abused or a patient who experiences complications with surgery or a Rodney King being beaten, it is prima facie evidence that a policy corrective is needed. In the dominant political psychology of the intelligentsia, the old liberal enthusiasm that we can achieve perfection is gone. But I detect little sign of acceptance that anything less than perfection is acceptable--little sign of a kind of an understanding that human existence is full of travail and human societies are full of imperfections, and that the first task of the policy-maker is to understand the nature of the human stuff with which he works. To understand the Nature of Man. Indeed, simply to get members of the intelligentsia to contemplate that there is such a thing as the Nature of Man, and that they are obligated to read, study, and then decide consciously what they believe it to be, would be a big step in the right direction.

Robert Samuelson
10:14 a.m.  Monday  12/2/96

       Anyone who has followed this cyber conversation is bound to assume that the four of us are among the most relentlessly cheerful people in the world, without a care or complaint. Speaking (obviously) only for myself, let me assure you that this is not the case. I am often discouraged, sometimes even mildly depressed. I worry all the time--about my children, about my work, and, occasionally, about the state of the nation or the world. But I still consider myself fortunate and my life a good one; my disappointments and anxieties are mostly private ones, with which I'll have to deal, for better or worse. That, I suspect, is the attitude of most people, and it is, on the whole, healthy. But one of the defining characteristics of our times is the increasing tendency--I say "increasing" just as a hunch, not based on much objective evidence--of people to convert their private disappointments into public complaints of one sort or another: that is, to find institutions, leaders, traditions, or laws at fault and to insist that some type of corrective action be taken. Sometimes this may be correct; sometimes it's just a delusion--a form of escapism and scapegoating; sometimes it's a complicated and confusing mix. But the growing expectation that something "ought to be" done about many of our private discontents is bound to disappoint in practice. It is simply too sweeping, and the inevitability of letdown is one reason--though not the only reason--why public leaders and institutions are held in low popular esteem.

Herb Stein
2:16 p.m.  Monday  12/2/96

       As far as I can see, in this discussion,
       a) no one is claiming that the majority of Americans are suffering from stagnant or declining real incomes; and
       b) no one is claiming that America is in a state of moral and cultural decline.
       Is this a correct reading, and does anyone care to comment on it?
       I detect in the recent submissions two quite different points of view. One, which I associate with Elliott, is that America faces serious class/race inequalities and inequities that could be ameliorated and that, if not ameliorated, will cause much trouble. The other, which I associate with Murray, is that we suffer from the illusion and expectation of perfectibility, which generates a demand for action, particularly government action, whenever anything less than perfection is encountered. I think that Sawhill falls more in the Elliott camp and Samuelson at least somewhat in the Murray camp, at least judging by the emphasis in his writing on unrealistic expectations.
       I wonder how the panelists react to this difference of views. Would Murray agree that "perfectibility" is a debating word, and that we are really talking about whether improvements can be made at a cost that those who would have to pay the cost would find acceptable? That is partly a question of values and partly a question of techniques. Would Elliott agree that the stability of the society demands some restraint, self-restraint, or constitutional restraint, on the demands that each individual can make for justice as he sees it? Then we would be back to issues of what, and how much, to do.
       The discussion of the "deserving" poor suggests a solution to me. Perhaps the deserving rich should help the deserving poor, and the undeserving rich should help the undeserving poor.