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« Trivia Tidbit Of The Day: Part 464 -- Iraq Media Coverage. | WILLisms.com | Recommendation of the Week: Part II. »

Trivia Tidbit Of The Day: Part 465 -- Some Good News.


Progress is evident when people are less satisfied with better results. For example, take American satisfaction or dissatisfaction with Presidential handling of the economy. Right now, despite a robust economy, President Bush gets nailed by the public.

Indeed, economic legacies are a funny thing:


President Bush's economic legacy will depend far too much on how things go over the next 13 months or so.

What is more interesting are long-term legacies that ideas have on our country. Ideas that transcend White House administrations. Ideas like the New Deal, Great Society, and Contract with America have left indelible legacies on the fabric of society. So let's think about some of those legacies for a bit.

People these days seem inordinately pessimistic about our public institutions, our political process, and so much else. It's odd, given that things have improved substantially in the past decade or so.

The three decades following 1960 brought a lot of welfare-state-driven bad to this country. For example:

...there had been a more than 500-percent increase in violent crime; a more than 400-percent increase in out-of-wedlock births; almost a tripling in the percentage of children on welfare; a tripling of the teenage suicide rate; a doubling of the divorce rate; and a decline of more than 70 points in SAT scores.

Bad juju, right there. America seemed cursed. Doomed to fade into the background, as a has-been, a once-great nation that-- by the 21st century-- would be an also-ran in the litany of world powers.

Not so fast. In the past decade or two, things have improved dramatically in the United States:

In a number of key categories, the amount of ground gained or regained since the early 1990’s is truly stunning. Crime, especially, has plummeted. According to the National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS), the rates of both violent crime and property crime fell significantly between 1993 and 2005, reaching their lowest levels since 1973 (the first year for which such data are available). More recent figures from the FBI, which measures crime differently from the NCVS, show an unfortunate uptick in violent crime in the last two years—particularly in cities like Baltimore, Boston, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C. Even so, however, the overall rate remains far below that of the mid-1990’s.

Teenage drug use, which moved relentlessly upward throughout the 1990’s, declined thereafter by an impressive 23 percent, and for a number of specific drugs it has fallen still lower. Thus, the use of ecstasy and LSD has dropped by over 50 percent, of methamphetamine by almost as much, and of steroids by over 20 percent.

Then there is welfare. Since the high-water mark of 1994, the national welfare caseload has declined by over 60 percent. Virtually every state in the union has reduced its caseload by at least a third, and some have achieved reductions of over 90 percent. Not only have the numbers of people on welfare plunged, but, in the wake of the 1996 welfare-reform bill, overall poverty, child poverty, black child poverty, and child hunger have all decreased, while employment figures for single mothers have risen.

Abortion, too, is down. After reaching a high of over 1.6 million in 1990, the number of abortions performed annually in the U.S. has dropped to fewer than 1.3 million, a level not seen since the Supreme Court’s 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade, which legalized the practice. The divorce rate, meanwhile, is now at its lowest level since 1970.

Educational scores are up. Earlier this year, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) reported that the nation’s fourth- and eighth-graders continue to improve steadily in math, and that fourth-grade reading achievement is similarly on the rise. Other findings show both fourth- and twelfth-graders scoring significantly higher in the field of U.S. history. Black and Hispanic students are also making broad gains, though significant gaps with whites persist. The high-school dropout rate, under 10 percent, is at a 30-year low, and the mean SAT score was 8 points higher in 2005 than in 1993, the year Bennett published his Index.

More generally, we are seeing important progress in critical areas of youth behavior. Since 1991 (a peak year), the birth rate for teenagers aged fifteen to nineteen has decreased by 35 percent. The number of high-school students who have reported ever having sexual intercourse has declined by more than 10 percent. Teen use of alcohol has also fallen sharply since 1996—anywhere from 10 to 35 percent, depending on the grade in school—and binge drinking has dropped to the lowest levels ever recorded. The same is true of teens reporting that they smoke cigarettes daily.

These figures truly are stunning. They indicate that we have been successful in addressing a wide level of societal ills. How did it happen?

Without offering detailed explanations, as one can normally find here, complete with graphs and numbers of what happened to improve our country, it seems pretty clear that 1) the end of the Cold War, 2) the dismantling of the 1960s Welfare State, 3) a generation-based attitudinal shift, and 4) the rise of the modern free market/low tax movement have all been pivotal.

First, the end of the Cold War. It was, if anything, a boost to morale. It proved that our system worked better than their system. It freed up resources, often known as the "peace dividend," which allowed America to devote its economy toward more productive endeavors. It allowed America to spearhead free trade agreements around the world, which have improved our nation's standard of living in countless ways. The end of the Cold War shifted the American political paradigm toward a fresh way of thinking about all kinds of economic, social, and political issues.

Second, and completely related, was the end of welfare as we knew it, in the 1990s. Seeing just how bad things really were in the former USSR allowed reformers in this country to get a shot at transforming welfare from a handout to a hand up. After all, we were no longer concerned that the Soviets would shame us for our urban (or rural) poor. We could be more American, policy-wise, at last. In the 1990s, we began seeing Section 8 housing ghettos razed to the ground. Instead, home ownership was promoted. Crime plummeted, as people became vested in their communities. People were required to work. The entire government incentive structure changed, eliminating many of the flawed policies of LBJ that did nothing but trap people into cycles of poverty and despair. We got tough on crime. Crime fell. And the country improved.

Third, and something that many people simply do not believe, is a fantastic generational shift in attitudes. The Baby Boomers rejected just about anything and everything of their parents' generation. The following generations may have their flaws, but in many ways, Generation X (the incorrectly characterized "slacker" generation) and other post-Boomer generations have infused the country with an ethic more like that of their grandparents. Meanwhile, many Boomers themselves have finally grown out of the 1960s. These hard-to-quantify generational shifts have reintroduced the concept of personal responsibility to the national psyche. Achievement, competition, and hard work are not dirty words. Wealth creation is celebrated, not resented. The concept of change has become more pragmatic. Change for the sake of change is not accepted wholesale because of some relativistic principle. Necessary and potentially positive changes, meanwhile, are not rejected outright due to stubborn dogma. Rather, younger generations tend to celebrate progress, without wantonly throwing out the wisdom of previous generations. This is a terrifically important, albeit fragile and tenuous, development.

Finally, we look at the rise of the modern free market movement in this country. You can trace it back to Goldwater or even before, but it was really Ronald Reagan who gave the movement meaningful energy. Moreover, the movement enjoyed a bigger victory than even the Reagan victory in 1980 when Republicans swept into Congress in 1994. Capital gains taxes were cut. Welfare was reformed. Income taxes were slashed. We saw tort/lawsuit reform. The free market movement had plenty of victories for about a decade, and those victories translated into improvements not only to the economy itself, but also to all kinds of seemingly peripheral social indicators.

This all being said, there are some strange developments in the past year or two, and they aren't good developments. First, it seems that the whole anti-war political playbook from Vietnam is back-- and maybe even more effective this time around, as people were more receptive to precisely the same arguments as before. When so many Americans are so emotionally invested in seeing America lose, something is wrong. Second, there is an inexplicable abandonment of free trade, especially among Democrats. For whatever reason, more people are rejecting trade, despite low unemployment (which should mitigate the worries about manufacturing job losses) and record GDP levels. Next, there seems to be entirely too much momentum behind socializing our health care system (did the Cold War teach us nothing?), raising taxes (seriously?), accepting junk environmentalism, yet very little momentum behind getting our fiscal shore in order before the entitlement tsunami hits.

All of the pessimism, socialist backsliding, and inaction we see from the current political process is wearing on the American people. How about we celebrate our successes a bit more, identify why we were successful in the first place, and then go create the conditions for more successes. President Bush was on the right track with his "Ownership Society," but Iraq and Katrina and a series of other circumstances thwarted his push to reform Social Security, the tax code, and potentially other areas of public policy.

The good news is that despite the media-driven doom and gloom, things in many ways not only have gotten better, but they are getting better, and most importantly, they can get better, even when it looks hopeless. And right now, the situation (GDP, unemployment, inflation, the federal budget deficit) is far from hopeless.


Previous Trivia Tidbit: Iraq War Media Coverage.

Posted by Will Franklin · 5 December 2007 05:15 PM


Will... That chart makes Carter look better than I recall. I remember double digit interest rates when Carter was President. Because of Carter, my grandfather voted for a Republican for the first time in his life. That is one legacy I will always remember...

Posted by: Zsa Zsa at December 6, 2007 06:50 AM

I'm not concerned about growing debt as long as GDP grows faster.

I think you hit a lot of good points, but my biggest concern about modern trends is the continuing growth of liberalism/leftism and the ensuing denigration of our history, culture, and people, which has as its counterpart the celebration of everything we aren't and everyone who isn't us.

Will America still be American in a century, or will it just be another Latin American cesspool? 100 years from now, will Europe still be European, or will the Moslems finally succeed where they failed in 732 (Battle of Tours), 1529 (Siege of Vienna), and 1683 (Battle of Vienna)?

Yes, it's heartening to see signs of improvement. I fear that things will get worse before they get better, though.

Posted by: Nathan Hale at December 8, 2007 03:06 AM


Thanks for the reminder of how things have gotten better in America. I am not sure what it is about our post-modern outlook that tends to bring on a negative side that hangs over our view of the future. Many factors I am sure.

One note. You mention "the dismantling of the 1960s Welfare State". Actually, the 1960s welfare state is still intact, except, as you point out, direct cash welfare payments. In the 1996 welfare reform, the New Deal AFDC program was converted to TANF, both programs being the basic welfare checks. But TANF has time limits and work requirements, unlike AFDC. So the 1996 welfare reform was great step forward as you point out.

But food stamps, housing vouchers, the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), Medicaid, SSI, and various other programs go on full speed ahead. Each program seems to look fine on its own. But in the collective, the evidence is that they do much damage. The middle class is mostly unscathed by them. But the lower class has been in a state of constant social turmoil since these programs became well-funded in the late 1960s.

The 1996 welfare reform was a tremendous success. I just wonder what is next in welfare reform. We should not stop, much more is needed. For the underclass sections of major cities to revive, I just don't see how this can occur when subsistence-welfare is still so pervasive. The utility of marriage is ruined. Single mothers remain poor, unattached men don't advance economically, and their children learn underclass values.

Charles Murray ended his pioneering 1984 book, titled Losing Ground, saying that the best thing we can do for the poor is to simply scrap all of these federal programs. He said to just "cut the knot". He said that in such an affluent society people will still manage to get by. You have to wonder then if two-parent families would become more common in the inner cities and young men working would become more normal again too.

I think the book Losing Ground had a big impact (largely uncredited) on the 1996 Welfare Reform. Charles Murray nailed the problem in clear terms, and a decade later change began. But the 1996 welfare reform was only a first step.

Posted by: Dan Morgan at December 8, 2007 08:34 PM

Reminder - and a reassurance for Zsa Zsa - the effect of a president gets rolling only gradually, and lingers on after he leaves. I always mentally add two years, meaning that the Bush economy runs from the end of 2002 to the end of 2010. If you make that adjustment, Carter plummets - as he should.

Posted by: Assistant Village Idiot at December 11, 2007 06:40 PM