Wednesday, March 14, 2012

What is wrong with America?

Everyone seems to have an opinion, but one thing is agreed: America is in a bad way. The economy is in the dumper. Over 15% of the work force is either unemployed or working part time while searching for a full time job. Housing prices are depressed and home foreclosures continue at historic rates. Strong majorities say that the country is heading in the wrong direction. The approval rating of congress is in the single digits. And, from our political leaders, all we receive is cognitive dissonance. The president says jobs are “job one,” yet he stops construction of the Keystone oil pipeline, thereby killing thousands of good new jobs.

Yet, the expensive restaurants are busy. The stock market is flirting with 13,000. Gold is at an all time high. At the movie theater last week, we saw a woman with three kids at the candy counter; her bill was $65! What’s up with that?

Social issues are becoming more serious. Have you checked out the sorry state of public education? Hint: underfunding is not the cause. Last week the Federal Departments of Education (Arne Duncan) and Justice (Eric Holder) released a report showing that black males at ghetto schools are disciplined at a higher rate than other children. Duncan and Holder use this “fact” of discrimination to explain the poorer performance of blacks at those schools. Is this just ignorance or more cognitive dissonance? Thomas Sowell (a black man) has the answer: “Among the many serious problems of ghetto schools is the legal difficulty of getting rid of disruptive hoodlums, a mere handful of whom can be enough to destroy the education of a far larger number of other black students — and with it destroy their chances for a better life. Make no mistake about it - the black students who go to school to get an education are the main victims of the classroom disrupters whom Duncan and Holder are trying to protect.”

On the family front, for the first time ever, the number of children born out-of-wedlock to women of all races in their prime childbearing years exceeds 50%. Think about that – over half of these children have no father in the house. Most will struggle to avoid lives of poverty and ignorance. Yet on the morning TV talk shows (like The View) women make excuses, some even holding up the unwed mothers as positive examples of sexual freedom.

When asked what’s wrong, my conservative friends generally say it’s obvious: the controlling political Party wants to make Americans more dependent on government -- and less free. I think they get it about half right – recall prescription drug coverage and NCLB. It seems to be just a matter of degree. Furthermore, I believe that these economic and political problems are merely symptoms of more serious underlying issues that threaten the American way of life.

I think that there are two existential problems for the American experiment, one generally economic and the other social and moral. These problems are sometimes interrelated and sometimes cause and effect. Marxists, Social Darwinists, hard-core secularists -- materialists of every stripe -- would have us think that economics determines everything. If people steal, it is because they are poor. Poverty, to their way of thinking, is the primary cause of social decay. Religious believers, on the other hand, hold that the poor can be just as righteous as the rich; it depends on your beliefs and how well you follow them. Whatever the cause and effect may be, these economic and social issues, taken together, are causing a crisis of confidence in American institutions.

It is our good fortune that these issues have been studied by two eminent scholars who have recently published their observations. In a penetrating series of articles for “The American Interest,” Walter Russell Mead addresses the economic crisis. Mead believes that the crisis is the natural consequence of the liberal and progressive economic system we enjoy. The root cause of the crisis is a paradigm shift in employment, from factory work to whatever will take its place.

Just over a century ago, there was a similar crisis caused by the decline of the family farm. The second agricultural revolution – the boom in productivity due to new farming technologies – meant that far fewer farm workers were needed. But industry was not yet ready to employ the millions of former farmers who were then unemployed. After some hard years, the factory system grew to employ all of the surplus farmers, and more, including millions of immigrants. The new economic model based on industrialization provided a much better living for ever more Americans.

That so called “Fordist” economy fostered American prosperity for most of the twentieth century. But American innovation in factory automation, computers and “killer apps” grew productivity to the point where far fewer workers were required to produce the goods we needed and sold. Manufacturing jobs slumped, even while manufacturing output grew. Foreign competition from low wage countries exacerbated the job loss here in the US. Most of those jobs are gone forever. What will we do next?

The social/moral crisis has been investigated in a remarkable new book by Charles Murray. In “Coming Apart: the State of White America, 1960-2010”, Murray addresses the disintegration of the family in the economic bottom third of the white population. Murray chronicles the inexorable breakdown since the 1960s of America’s founding virtues – marriage, industry, honesty and religiosity – within the blue-collar class, and the personal and communal wreckage that has ensued. We’re seeing the “collapse of the central cultural institution in one particular part of America” – meaning the collapse of marriage among the working class.

It is hard to tie this cultural breakdown to economic conditions. During the Great Depression, the poor were more numerous and far poorer than today, yet economic stress did not undermine the family in those terribly hard times. Moreover, social breakdown began in the 1960s, a time of unprecedented prosperity. So what went wrong?

One cause was the radicalism of the feminist movement. While demanding equal rights for women, radicals also concluded that the nuclear family was antiquated -- a man in the home was superfluous. Feminine studies programs grew up in the universities preaching the virtues of single motherhood. The Federal government Great Society programs enabled people to avoid work and gave young women an incentive to have children without marrying. Sexual liberation was a great thing, especially for single men.

Fortunately for them, the upper class generally recognized how destructive this behavior was and gradually returned to their more conservative ways. The lower class whites never made the right turn and the statistics tell a sad story. For example, only 48 percent of working class whites aged 30-49 were married in 2010 compared to 83 percent in the white upper class.

These foundational problems, one economic and one social, have solutions. You may be surprised to find that one is progressive while the other is conservative. I’ll describe these problems and solutions in more detail in the following two posts.


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