Counting Our Blessings

Counting Our Blessings

Nov. 30 2004 4:33 PM

Counting Our Blessings

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Charles Murray
8:39 a.m.  Tuesday  12/3/96

       Michael Elliott and Belle Sawhill's remarks each pushed a number of buttons, and the closing remarks are a good place to make sure we have not seemed to have more agreement than we really do, so here goes:
       Michael worries that "we have demonized and emasculated Washington so much that it is unable to perform the tasks it once did." If we're talking about the tasks that Washington performed prior to 1964, fine; if we're talking about the tasks that Washington has taken on since then, I'm not sure which ones Michael has in mind. In most cases, I think Washington has not only failed, has not only made matters worse, but is inherently incapable of performing the functions it has taken on. Amend that: Government at any level is inherently incapable of performing most of them. In the last few years, we may have partly succeeded in demonizing Washington, but we aren't even close to emasculation. Emasculation is a goal, not a fear.
       Which leads me back to the task of counting our blessings. The good things that happen to this country, I would argue, arise from free people able to run their own lives and the lives of their communities. When the politicians try to tell us that government is responsible for these good things, I am reminded of the rooster who thinks the sun rises because it crows.

Robert Samuelson
9:20 a.m.  Tuesday  12/3/96

       How is it that every discussion of this type--no matter where it starts--seems to end with a debate over poverty and income inequality? One answer, I suspect, is that these questions create endless make-work for the chattering class. But these are not the only questions that face America, and they may not be the most important. My greatest fears for the future of our society involve external threats, not internal. If I knew exactly what they were (nuclear theft and proliferation are good places to start), I'd say; but what worries me most is that we can't say what they are, and, in the face of this uncertainty, we seem to have stopped worrying about outside dangers at all. I also think we face dangerous internal divisions, but I disagree with Mike Elliott that they involve class. With an unemployment rate of 5 or 6 or 6.5 percent, there isn't going to be a class war in the United States. Period. There's no tradition for it. Those $18-an-hour jobs were never so plentiful as mythology holds; the children and the grandchildren of a lot of the men who once held these jobs have gone on to college and high-paying nonmanufacturing jobs. They would consider a return to a factory--at almost any wage--a step down the social scale. (Before 1940, fewer than 5 percent of adults were college grads; now the figure is approaching 25 percent.)
       If the unemployment rate rose permanently to 8, 9, or 10 percent, we might risk intense class antagonisms--but we'd also have many other problems associated with economic failure, too. The really serious social conflicts today involve race, religion, ethnicity, and sex; and unfortunately, they are fanned by our modern style of "identity politics," which is practiced by both parties either in the groups whose support they solicit or the groups whose views they attack.
       Finally, I think the tone of the discussion between Murray and Sawhill illustrates what's wrong with so much of our public debate today. Murray seems to imply that almost nothing good can come from government (certainly not anything that government has done since 1960 or 1965); that's wrong, I think. Sawhill seems to imply that almost any social problem that persists must be solved by government--an attitude that condemns government to failure, because not all social problems can be solved. Some can be dealt with for better or worse, but not always through more government. I think Herb Stein is correct when he says that the practical issues are "what and how much to do," but these shadings do not make for easy or very engaging op-ed pieces. And so the chattering class (with representation from all ideological, religious, racial, and sexual tribes) keeps presenting false choices, because that's what keeps them in business.

Michael Elliott
10:23 a.m.  Tuesday  12/3/96

       Let me see if I can sum up my position, while replying to some of our moderator's questions. The United States, I think, is in pretty good shape economically and socially. Its successes are manifold--and not simply because, from the wellspring of its entrepreneurial drive, it has built a set of industries in new technologies that will serve it well in the next century. Just as importantly, it has assimilated a huge and continuing influx of immigrants better than any other nation could even dream of doing. Those immigrants have revitalized old cities--like New York--and show every sign of being as attached to traditional American values, like hard work and neighborliness, as their forebears. It is quite true--to take one of Stein's points--that the culture has become crude, cruder than many of us (I include myself) would like. But this is an international phenomenon, and in the absence some sort of censorship of the kind with which I am fuzzily uncomfortable, I see little that we can do about it--save to hope that the pendulum swings once more in the direction of good taste. (And it might--would anyone have predicted that Romeo and Juliet and The English Patient would be among the top ten grossing films two weeks before Christmas?)
       My principle anxiety about the future is one that belies my origins in the Old World. I have never thought that the United States had a God-given dispensation from class division and class envy. During the Golden Age after 1945, a rising tide really did lift all boats, and technology (especially television) democratized entertainment; everyone, white or blue collar, could discuss I Love Lucy or The Honeymooners with similar enjoyment. But the shape of the new economy and an increasing fragmentation of lifestyles make me fear for continued social cohesion. Politically, we have been very lucky so far that a social populist has not emerged to crystallize the resentment of the working class--though Pat Buchanan's career suggests that one day someone might. I recall a memorable short piece by Charles in the National Review some years back, when he predicted the coming of a "Latin American" sort of social division in the United States. At the time, it made me very uncomfortable--and it still does.
       If there are divisions between us--between rich and poor, between one state and another (I think that latter difference is underplayed by most Americans)--how shall we ameliorate them? Charles and I don't really disagree--I, too, think that the principal way in which America can find yet more blessings to count is in the free actions of free people. And like Belle Sawhill, I find much comfort in the American ability to find, in communities of many sorts, a source of succor and comfort to those who, for whatever reason, are down on their luck. Better, by far, that we should use individuals and communities to ameliorate social tensions than encourage an "entitlement" mentality in which everyone who has suffered a passing blow runs to the government for assistance. (That answers Stein's point on the need for restraint.)
       It may be that one should end there; and in present conditions, I think I would. But I have a nagging worry that we may one day need another FDR to bind the nation together, to defend the powerless and provide at least some redistribution from the haves to the have-nots. Probably, should such a contingency come to pass, we'll be all right--"Cometh the hour, cometh the man." Still, I remain bothered by the conviction of some conservatives that there is little that government can do of any use; and in the conviction of more conservatives (which I think is just daft) that state and federal governments are better at social policy than Washington. I don't disagree with the proposition that if government tries to do everything, it will do nothing very well. But the obverse of that is not that government has no tasks--it is that such tasks should be limited in their objectives and carried out with skill and effectiveness. Such a government would be a true blessing.

Isabel Sawhill
11:03 a.m.  Tuesday  12/3/96

       In response to the moderator's questions, I would have to say that many people (perhaps a majority) are suffering stagnant or declining incomes, although I am not sure we are measuring incomes very well these days. Moral and cultural decline? Maybe. Let's just say that prosperity hasn't brought with it either good manners or good taste.
       As I said at the beginning, our blessings are not equally shared. The new stratifying variables in American life are education and family structure; these matter more than class or race, although they comingle with both.
       I believe we can do better. Unlike Charles Murray, I think the desire to improve is part of human nature. That doesn't mean that those in leadership positions should overreach or overpromise. This eventually erodes trust and breeds cynicism. Nor does it mean that we can simply pass the buck for whatever ails us to someone else. We must take responsibility for our own lives and acquire good civic habits. Nonetheless, some tasks, if they are to be done at all, must be done collectively.
       Our most important collective task is educating our children. If anyone doubts it can be done better, they should take a look at some other countries. In principle, children should have as good an education as they are capable of absorbing from a very early age. In practice, a child's education depends on how much his parents can afford to pay for housing and whether he lives in a community where there is a critical mass of other parents who take an interest in the schools. Vouchers have drawbacks, but experiments with targeting them on low-income children in some cities have produced promising results. Outside the school, young people of all ages need more supervision and nurturing. Picking up on Herb Stein's idea about the undeserving rich, perhaps we should make one tier of Social Security conditional on the willingness to mentor the next generation.
       Repairing the family is a more daunting challenge. The latest census data suggest some stabilizing of well-known trends. Combine this with polling data showing more conservative values among the youngest generation and there is room for optimism. Marriage may once more come into vogue. Government policies can support such values, even though I doubt they can have more than a small influence on behavior.
       Thanks to S
LATE, the moderator, and all my fellow panelists for a very pleasant cyber-seminar.

Herb Stein
1:56 p.m.  Tuesday  12/3/96

       Late in our discussion, Samuelson raises the question of foreign threats to our peaceful existence. We probably should have come to this earlier. One important aspect of the matter was discussed earlier by the Committee of Correspondence in a panel on anti-missile defense, to which I refer our readers.
       As far as domestic matters are concerned, our attention seems to have focused in the children-race-poverty area. The more we look at that, the more questions appear. We have no very good idea of how big that problem is. Sawhill refers to 45 percent of all firstborn children are born to mothers who are either unmarried, teen-aged, or have not graduated from high school. But surely, many of that 45 percent are blessings to their parents and to the society. About 20 percent of all children are in poverty, as officially defined, but we know that the official definition is not a very good measure of what we emotionally associate with poverty. The number living in what some, including Sawhill, have called the underclass--living in areas marked by high ratios of joblessness, welfare-dependency, school-dropouts, and absence of fathers--is much smaller. Suppose the number is not large enough to cause a serious threat to the rest of the community. Is that a satisfactory condition? What obligations of sympathy and help do the rest of us have as Americans, Christians, Jews, human beings? And if we go down that path, where do we stop--at Rwanda? Perhaps our whole discussion should have been not about counting our blessings as Americans, but about our blessings as human beings.
       And beyond questions of obligation and sympathy, we run into difficult questions of means and effectiveness. The most discouraging aspect of our present situation is the accumulating evidence of the failure of so many of the policies that we expected to be correctives. We do spend a lot of money on education, with disappointing results. The evaluations of Head Start are not encouraging. The record of remedial training programs is no better. One who feels a great desire to help the disadvantaged is left with a sense of helplessness. This may be a particularly depressing condition for economists. We are used to dealing with the behavior of individuals who are psychologically like an 18th-century Scottish philosopher--farsighted, rational, and devoted to family (even though Adam Smith had no wife or children). We are at a loss in trying to understand and prescribe for people who do not have those characteristics. But that is not a reason to give up. We--and here I don't mean economists especially--have to try harder to learn how to deal with our problems.
       Partly at the prodding of the moderator, the discussion of the last few days has concentrated on problems. But we should not forget where we started--with a general expression of thanksgiving for our many blessings. Listing our problems should not be allowed to blot out our blessings.
       I thank our panel for an exceptionally stimulating and penetrating discussion. I hope and believe that the discussion has put the American condition in a perspective not usually seen.
      Next week, starting December 9, the Committee will consider the proposal for an amendment to the Constitution requiring that the Federal budget be balanced.