Why You'll Be Seeing More Microwaves in Cars

GEORGE F. WILL

January 16, 1992|By GEORGE F. WILL

WASHINGTON. — Washington -- As subtle indices of the nation's condition, here are four small facts pregnant with political meaning:

* In 1991 Wal-Mart replaced Sears as the nation's largest retailer.

* The Center for Disease Control, studying violence as a communicable epidemic, reports that one in five high-school students carries a gun, knife or club into the classroom.

* Alan Greenspan, keeper of the currency, says his mail is running heavily against -- yes, against -- lower interest rates.

* The Campbell Soup Company predicts that by the turn of the century -- just eight years -- 25 percent of all automobiles will contain microwave ovens.

The four facts illuminate a fifth -- national stress.

Wal-Mart's ascendancy is the result of brilliant execution of several strategies (inventory control, advantageous partnerships with vendors) and two insights:

The dispersal of America's population from central cities would enable a chain of discount stores to grow by starting in small towns and moving toward suburbs.

And the great tendency of the 1980s was not the opulence of the few (noticed, because partaken of, by journalists) but the frugality of the many.

Wal-Mart may be the emblematic enterprise of post-1973 America, the period since the oil shocks made economic growth problematic and personal income growth sluggish. The emblematic sight of these 18 years has been women driving off to work to help maintain their families' suburban standards of living.

In the last two decades the work week has lengthened, especially for women and everyone in small businesses, and leisure time has declined even more as adults in two-earner families scramble to achieve and maintain suburban living. (This will be the first presidential election in which a majority of voters will be suburbanites.)

The primary emotion behind the scramble? Fear, and not just fear of being driven down the social ladder. Fear of being driven down is related to a stark physical fear. Urban governments are failing to perform their primary function of protecting people from violence, on streets and even in homes and schools.

Some people say crime today is not as bad as the media make it seem. But by some measures it is worse than it seems. UCLA's James Q. Wilson estimates that if we still had the quality of medical care (especially shock trauma and emergency care) of 1957, today's murder rate would be three times higher than it is.

One reason governments seem to be taxing more and performing worse is the explosive compounding of slow economic growth with the aging of the population in a welfare state servile toward the elderly. Lee Smith of Fortune magazine reports that we are spending $11,000 on every American over 65 but only $4,200 on each child under 18. (Wonder why? Those over 65 have a voting rate 50 percent higher than those 18-34.)

By the turn of the century, spending on the elderly will absorb approximately half of the federal budget. That is one reason why in some cities the rate of immunization of poor children is lower than in Uganda.

It is an old story: The squeaking wheels get the grease. The elderly write better letters than infants write. Fed Chairman Greenspan says that most of his mail about interest rates comes from retirees living on interest from savings. They are not amused by rate reductions that reduce their incomes.

Economic anemia, governmental paralysis, frazzled families. What about Americans' most intimate relationships, with their cars?

Americans are turning their cars into mobile offices, kitchens and recreation rooms because they are spending so much time in them during the congestion of commuting. Fortune's John Huey reports that the most common commute is not within a city, or from a suburb into a city, but from one suburb to another. America has more cars than licensed drivers and the average adult drives 3,000 miles per year more than in 1983.

California's Office of Traffic Safety, also not amused, reports that commuters are not just telephoning (there are 6.4 million cellular phones, up from half a million in 1986), they -- drivers -- are brushing (and flossing) their teeth, diapering and nursing babies, mending clothes, eating baked potatoes and bowls of cereal.

Politicians should ponder these matters when trying to understand the electorate's short fuse and shorter attention span. And if you, harried reader, are reading this during your 50-mile (and 75 miles per hour) commute, pull over, for Pete's sake, over there into the Wal-Mart's parking lot.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

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