Saturday, January 26, 2008

How bad are things, anyway? Pessimism, Optimism, and The Economist

I've had a pile of old clippings on my desk. I'm finally trying to deal with them.

The December 22, 2007-January 4, 2008 issue of The Economist included what I thought was a witty--actually, very encouraging--commentary on Americans' collective consciousness. Sometimes it takes an outsider to help you see yourself accurately.

The author, known as "Lexington" to his readers, describes a certain scene in Jim Carrey's "Dumb and Dumber":
Lloyd Christmas [Carrey's character] . . . falls in love with a classy beauty, Mary Swanson. In one scene he asks her the chances of “a guy like you and a girl like me” ending up together. The answer is “Not good”. “Not good like one out of a hundred?” asks Lloyd. “More like one out of a million,” Mary replies. Lloyd pauses for a moment, then shoots back, “So you're telling me there's a chance?”
"That," says the author, "is the American spirit" and why "Americans have traditionally been much more optimistic than Europeans, and happier too. They believe that people determine their own destinies rather than being the mere playthings of fate. They also believe that their children will have a better life than they do."

The problem is, says the author, right now Americans are believing too much pessimistic talk from the media:
The likes of Bill O'Reilly and Lou Dobbs have transformed themselves into cable stars by ranting about cultural decay and “broken borders”. Patrick Buchanan's latest book is called “Day of Reckoning: How Hubris, Ideology and Greed are Tearing America Apart”. “We are on a path to national suicide,” he says. America is not just “coming apart”, but also “decomposing”.

There is certainly no shortage of bad news. But coming apart? Decomposing? The current issue of Commentary—a magazine hardly noted for its sunny disposition—contains an excellent article, “Crime, Drugs, Welfare and Other Good News” by Peter Wehner (a former senior White House aide) and Yuval Levin, which shows why Mr Buchanan is talking through his hat.

Both violent crime and property crime have declined dramatically since 1973. New York City will probably notch up less than 500 murders this year, the lowest since the early 1960s (the figure for 1990 was 2,262). Teenagers are cleaning up their act. Teenage drug use has fallen by 23% overall since the 1990s, and by 50% for LSD and ecstasy. Teens are drinking less, smoking less, having sex less and dropping out of school less. The birth rate for 15-19-year-olds has fallen by 35% since 1991. At 10%, the high-school drop-out rate is at a 30-year low.

Welfare reform is working. The welfare caseload has dropped by 60% since 1994. A series of social evils—overall poverty, child poverty, child hunger—have all decreased. Employment figures for single mothers have surged. The number of abortions fell from over 1.6m in 1990 to fewer than 1.3m this year. The divorce rate is at its lowest level since 1970. Education scores are up.

And so it goes.

Oh, yes, there is plenty of bad news, too. But--the kicker for me--let's look at America's history.
Americans have always had a vigorous tradition of pessimism, in counterpoint to the optimistic one. In 1819 John Adams worried about the duration of “our vast American Empire”. In 1948 Richard Hofstadter complained that “competition and opportunity” had gone into decline and that Americans were looking “wistfully back toward a golden age”. Much of today's pessimism may prove as unfounded.
And so, concludes our author: "Americans should rediscover the spirit of Lloyd Christmas, idiot though he was."

Ah! The Economist! I love how they report the news!
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