Sunday, February 19, 2012

Are We Coming Apart?

John C. Goodman makes some interesting points below about social decay in America but offers little by way of explanation for it. Yet I think the explanation is fairly obvious and arises directly from his comparison between the upper and lower echelons of American society. I think he is describing the gradual effects of increasing government welfare provision. A generation has now grown up with little fear of poverty and for those at the bottom of the social hierarchy what they can get from working is little improvement over what they can get by not working. And that undermines everything, self-respect included.

For the upper echelons, however, work is MUCH more remunerative than a life on welfare so they do what is needed to realize their potential. They care more about their lives, about making good decisions and about the future. It seems to me that all the differences described below can be accounted for in that way. Welfare has sapped the vitality and ethics of a large slice of the American population

We are experiencing an ever widening cultural divide, according to Charles Murray.

Upper-middle class professional types may pretend that they are cultural relativists, accepting of whatever lifestyle their fellow human beings happen to choose. In reality, they live by old fashioned puritan values, however. They get married and stay married. They work hard and work long hours.

Not so for the blue collar, never-got-beyond-high-school class, however. A shocking number aren't even working at all. Many are not getting married in the first place. Of those that get married, the divorce and separation rates are soaring.

What about happiness and well-being? About 65% of the upper middle class professional types say they are in happy marriages. That number has been dropping steadily for the past 40 years for the working class types; and today it stands at 25%!

Murray, by the way, is the author of Losing Ground, the book generally credited with sparking welfare reform in the United States, and The Bell Curve, the book that generated a national debate on the role of IQ in our society. When he speaks, people on both the right and the left tend to listen. His latest book, Coming Apart, is another block buster.

Just so you don't think what Murray is describing is all about race or about immigrants, the entire analysis in it is focused on non-Hispanic whites. Within the white population a cultural cataclysm is underway. One part of that population (about 20% of the total) is firmly attached to traditional values. The other part (about 30% of the total) is undergoing cultural disintegration.

In 1960, these two groups of people lived similar lives. Today, they are headed in opposite directions.

Take divorce. Between 1960 and 1980, Murray shows that working class whites' divorce/separation rate rose from about 5% to about 15%. Over the next 20 years it more than doubled again, rising from 15% to 35%. The professional class also saw an increase in the divorce rate rise between 1960 and 1980: from about 1% to about 7.5% between 1960 and 1980. But it then completely leveled off: the professional class divorce/separation rate has been flat for the last thirty years. The same pattern holds for children growing up in broken homes. There has been a steady increase for the working class and a low plateau for the professional class.

What about work? In 1968, only 3% of prime age males with no more than a high school education were "out of the labor force." By 2008, that figure climbed to 12% — almost one in eight. Meanwhile, little has changed among males with a college education.

Part-time work is another indicator of the decline of industriousness among the working class. Among prime age males with no more than a high school education, the fraction working fewer than 40 hours a week doubled — from 10% in 1968 to 20% in 2008. Among the college graduates, the rise was much smaller: from 9% to 12%.

Writing in The New York Times the other day, David Brooks noted that the key ingredient in the cultural disintegration of working class life style is the role of men:

Tens of millions of men have marred life chances because schools are bad at educating boys, because they are not enmeshed in the long-term relationships that instill good habits and because insecure men do stupid and self-destructive things.

Over the past 40 years, women's wages have risen sharply but, as Michael Greenstone and Adam Looney of the Hamilton Project point out, median incomes of men have dropped 28 percent and male labor force participation rates are down 16 percent. Next time somebody talks to you about wage stagnation, have them break it down by sex. It's not only globalization and technological change causing this stagnation. It's the deterioration of the moral and social landscape, especially for men.

Religious beliefs are changing too. Secularism rose 11 percentage points (from 29% to 40%) for the upper middle class, but rose 21 percentage points (from 38% to 59%) for the working class.

What about cause and effect? It should be obvious that culture affects economic outcomes, but some on the left think it's the other way around. Here's an amazing statement by Paul Krugman writing in The New York Times:

Traditional values aren't as crucial as social conservatives would have you believe — and, in any case, the social changes taking place in America's working class are overwhelmingly the consequence of sharply rising inequality, not its cause.

As usual, Krugman has it completely wrong. When Charles Murray was in Dallas the other day I suggested to him that culture is like the economists' notion of a "public good." We all benefit from it, even if we personally do nothing to create it, nurture it, or defend it. But if the institutions that sustain a culture are weak and eroding, then the culture itself will disappear and everyone will be affected by that change.

What is happening in working class America is the disintegration of the American way of life.



When JFK betrayed true heroes who believed in him

Many widows living in south Florida feel differently about Kennedy’s magnetism. You'll often find these ladies, with itchy noses and red-rimmed eyes, ambling amidst the long rows of white crosses at the Cuban Memorial in Miami. It's a mini-Arlington, in honor of Castro's murder victims and those who fell trying to free Cuba from the Stalinism he imposed with his Soviet overlords while the “Leader of the Free World” seemed oddly distracted.

Some of these ladies will be kneeling, others walking slowly, looking for a name. You remember a similar scene from the opening frames of Saving Private Ryan. Many clutch rosaries. Many of the ladies will be pressing their faces into the breast of a relative who drove them there, a relative who wraps his arms around her spastically heaving shoulders.

Try as he might not to cry himself, he usually finds that the sobs wracking his mother, grandmother, sister or aunt are contagious. Yet he's often too young to remember the face of his martyred uncle or cousin - the name they just recognized on the white cross. “Killed in Action, Bay of Pigs April 18th 1961.”

Another woman will go home after placing flowers under her father's cross - a father she never knew. "Killed in action, Bay of Pigs, April 18th, 1961" also reads his cross. She was two at the time.

"Where are the PLANES?" her father’s commander yelled into his radio from the blood-soaked beachhead. "Send planes or we can’t last!” he yelled while Soviet Howitzers decimated his horribly outnumbered men, Soviet tanks closed-in, and his casualties piled up. Meanwhile “The Leader of the Free World” seemed oddly distracted.

“We must support anti-Castro fighters,” these ladies had heard (candidate) Kennedy implore short months earlier during his debates with Richard Nixon. “So far these freedom fighters have received no help from our government,” (candidate) Kennedy complained.

Short weeks before the debates CIA chief Allen Dulles (on Ike's orders) had briefed Kennedy about Cuban invasion plans. And since the plans were secret, Kennedy knew Nixon couldn't rebut. And indeed, Vice President Nixon (the invasion’s main booster, in fact) bit his tongue. He could easily have stomped Kennedy on it. But to some candidates national security trumps debating points.

“We shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty!” these ladies heard from Kennedy mere minutes after he was elected “Leader of the Free World.”

Four months later, 1,500 of those very Cuban freedom-fighters that "we must support" were slugging it out 90 miles from U.S. shores against 31,000 Soviet-armed troops, squadrons of Stalin tanks and Castro’s entire air force. The beachhead is now known as the Bay of Pigs.

"We will NOT be evacuated!" yelled the commander of these ladies’ dads and husbands into his radio. "We came here to fight!" He was responding to the enraged and heartsick CIA man who - upon realizing the magnitude of the betrayal from “The Leader of the Free World.’--was offering to evacuate the Cuban freedom-fighters from the doomed beachhead. “We don’t want evacuation!” roared San Roman back into his radio. “Send planes! Send ammo! We came here to FIGHT!”

The pleas made it to Navy Chief Admiral Arleigh Burke in Washington, D.C., who conveyed them in person to his commander-in-chief. "Two planes, Mr. President!" Admiral Burke sputtered into his commander-in-chief's face. The fighting admiral was livid, pleading for permission to allow just two of his jets to blaze off a U.S. carrier just offshore from the beachhead and support the desperately embattled freedom-fighters.

"Burke, we can't get involved in this," replied Kennedy, who’d just emerged in a white tux from an elegant ball where he’d twirled a smiling Jackie around the dance-floor, to the coos, claps and twitters of the enchanted crowd.

"WE put those Cuban boys there, Mr. President!" the fighting admiral exploded. "By God, we ARE involved!"' But Admiral Burke could not budge The Leader of the Free World from betraying his pledge to the freedom-fighters desperately battling Soviet Imperialism 90 miles from U.S. shores.

The freedom-fighters were expending their last bullets as Lynch again offered to evacuate them. But San Roman again responded: “No!--This ends here!”, his response was barely audible over the deafening blasts from the storm of Soviet artillery.

"Can't continue," crackled the final message from San Roman a day later. For three days his force of mostly volunteer civilians had battled savagely against a Soviet-trained-and-led force 10 times theirs’ size, inflicting casualties of 20 to 1. To this day their feat of arms amazes professional military men. “They fought magnificently—and they were NOT defeated!” stressed their trainer Marine Col. Jack Hawkins, a multi-decorated veteran of Bataan, Iwo Jima and Inchon. “They simply ran out of ammunition after being abandoned by their sponsor the U.S. Government.”

Morale will do that to a fighting force. And there's no morale booster like watching Soviet proxies Fidel Castro and Che Guevara ravage your homeland and families, believe me.

Ammo finally ran out. "Russian tanks overrunning my position," reported San Roman on his radio... "destroying my equipment.” Finally the radio went dead.

"Tears filled my eyes," writes CIA man Grayston Lynch, a multi-decorated WWII and Korea vet who trained and befriended the Cuban freedom-fighters—and took their final message. "I broke down completely,” writes the Silver Star-winner who carried scars from Omaha Beach, Bastogne and Korea’s Heartbreak Ridge. “For the first time in my 37 years I was ashamed of my country.”



Orwellian Doublespeak Dominates Economic Policy

While taking in my morning helping of news and commentary, I was struck by a certain similarity in every article touching on economic policy. It wasn't just the trampling of the Constitution, the abandonment of rational accounting principles, or the futility of the search for logic behind the proposals coming out of Washington that was so disturbing. There is nothing new about such sad developments. We long ago began to adapt to life without these bygone bulwarks against chaos.

It was the progressive destruction of the English language that prompted coffee to come out of my nose. Without a common understanding of precisely what words mean, rational discourse becomes futile. We might as well babble gibberish at each other as we fall back to settling our differences swinging clubs.

For example, what does "unemployment" mean? How can the official unemployment rate go down when millions of discouraged job seekers stop looking for work and the nation's labor participation rate takes the biggest plunge in history? Easy; simply stop counting people who drop out of the labor market. Numerous articles have pointed this out, but even sophisticated investors don't seem to be paying attention. When newspaper headlines proclaim, "Unemployment Down!" the stock market goes up. Smart stock buyers tell you that they know better but are betting on the trading behavior of people who don't. How's that for baking institutionalized ignorance into the market?

Can you buy "insurance" to protect yourself from predictable, repetitive events like paying your cable TV bill? No? So exactly how did we get into this big brouhaha about who has to pay for "insurance" coverage to gain "access" to birth control pills? (I looked up "access." It didn't say "free stuff.")

If compound obfuscation is your fancy, try "unemployment insurance." It's the only kind of "insurance" where your benefits can go up even when you are out of work and not paying any premiums. And if you stop looking for work as soon as you finish collecting benefits, you are no longer unemployed. Brilliant!

What does "inflation" mean? I know what I have to spend when I go to the grocery store and stop at the gas pump. Yet the official inflation rate excludes food and energy. How can the assurances of government officials be so contrary to our everyday experiences? Grouch Marx explained it. "Who are you going to believe, me or your lying eyes?"

The star word of this silly season is "fair." The top 10% of tax filers pay 70% of all income taxes while the bottom half collectively pay almost no income tax. Yet we are in a huge debate about increasing taxes on those already paying the most in order to decrease taxes on those already paying the least. And it's all in the name of "fairness." That was a pretty neat trick. Think how different the debate would sound if instead of "fair" we used the words "stick ‘em up!"

While we're at it, do you know what your "tax rate" is? The most recent IRS data show that the top 1% of taxpayers fork 24% of their adjusted gross income over to Uncle Sam in income taxes. The next 1-5% cohort pays 16.4%, the next 5-10% pays 11.4%, the next 10-25% pays 8.2%, the next 25-50% pays 5.6%, and the bottom 50% pay a barely measurable 1.85%. In a progressive tax system, when you make more money you not only pay more taxes, you pay taxes at a higher average rate. Our current tax system may be impossibly complex, corrupt, and inefficient but it delivers exactly that result. So how did we end up in a shouting match about "millionaires and billionaires," enjoying a lower "tax rate" than secretaries when it's just not true? Better ask Obama's favorite billionaire. Maybe Warren Buffett can explain how someone that makes $200,000 a year is a millionaire.

It gets better. Giving money to your friends and political donors to finance hare brained speculative schemes is called an "investment." How can that be? I don't know, ask the Energy Department. But rest assured, fair taxpayer, your money is as safe as the General Motors stock the White House bought on your behalf. Perhaps they salted away your shares in the Social Security "lockbox."

God forbid we should invest our Social Security "accounts" in the stock market, which can go down, when we can entrust our "savings" to Congress, who has stolen them altogether. And speaking of speakers, is Congress "in session?" Better not ask the Speaker of the House.

Don't you love all those "budget cut" announcements? When we cut the budget in my household, spending goes down. Only in Washington can a "budget cut" lead to higher spending. You have to look at the numbers to learn that what they are really doing is marginally decreasing the acceleration in the growth of spending. As a geek, I know a second derivative when I see one. Apparently, members of the press never took math.

Train your eye to spot these language debaucheries, and send me your favorites. They have become so widespread that it makes you nostalgic for the days when we used to argue about what "is" is, or what carnal acts count as "sex" when the Commander in Chief claims he didn't have any. At least back then it was all good fun, speculating on the latest adventures of the presidential trouser trout as we watched our 401(k)s grow as fast as Pinocchio's nose.

Today, it's not so much fun. In fact, it's getting ugly. It will get uglier still if we don't get back to speaking plain English to each other.




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