It's Not Just the Economy, Stupid

BEN WATTENBERG

November 11, 1992|By BEN WATTENBERG

WASHINGTON — Washington.--The buzzing is all about President-elect Clinton's priorities. It is said that ''the economy'' will be highest because we are in ''an economic crisis,'' and because Mr. Clinton ran on ''change'' and ''to grow the economy,'' all of which yields a ''mandate'' to -- what else? -- change the economy. Surely, and properly, he will quickly try to spur economic growth. But I will guess this: If President Clinton makes his mark it will not be on economics, but on social policy.

There is a reason for this, and new proof. The American economy grows, and falters, and then grows some more. This yields a jagged but ascendant national trend line, regardless of who is president. This is made apparent in the new edition of America's best book, ''The Statistical Abstract of the United States.'' Mr. Clinton should read it as he takes inventory of his situation.

Consider the glum year of 1991. It was a year of a recession, a big deficit, corporate layoffs and a wrenching global economic transformation.

Still, the gross domestic product in 1991 fell only by an after-inflation 0.7 percent, after eight years of solid growth. (The 1992 figure will be positive again, probably about 2.2 percent.) The number of jobs fell by a million in 1991 after growing by 10 million since 1985. There are still 20 million manufacturing jobs, about what there were in the mid-'80s, but during that time professional and managerial jobs grew by more than 7 million.

It would be nice to report that our social situation also keeps getting better, with only temporary recessions. Alas, that is not where the Abstract's numbers take us.

In a more prosperous society fewer people should be dependent on welfare. But the number receiving Aid to Families with Dependent Children went up by 8 percent from 1980 to 1990, to 12 million. The number of food-stamp recipients has been hovering at about 20 million.

It is no wonder. The rate of divorced persons has climbed to an all-time high. The number of children living without both parents trended 15-23-28 percent in 1970-80- 91. The proportion of babies born out-of-wedlock has climbed 11-18-27 percent in 1970-80-89, with the fastest growth rate among whites.

The violent-crime situation is deteriorating. The rate is at an all-time high, up 31 percent from 1985 to 1990, and up 10 percent from 1989 to 1990, as measured by the FBI's ''crimes known to the police.''

We have much to be proud of in our education system, but student achievement, measured by the SAT and other tests, shows little upward movement.

In short: It's not just the economy, stupid.

Does Bill Clinton have a solution for our social ailments? The election issue of Newsweek (''How He Won'') reminds us that he had something important to say. He expressed his public philosophy, again and again, in these words: ''No more something for nothing.'' That, too, is his mandate.

It is a worthy goal for an American president, particularly a Democratic president, particularly Mr. Clinton. His welfare plan -- ''a helping hand, not a way of life'' -- is keyed directly to ''no more something for nothing.'' So are his education ideas, linked to testing, and earned college scholarships.

Crime is tougher, but Mr. Clinton's idea of using military bases as ''boot camps'' for teen-age hoods makes sense. He may have to look seriously at the idea of using further military assets. Until punishment catches up to crime, there is a something-for-nothing quality to criminality, and it won't get better.

Going to a something-for-something government standard means changing the culture. Ultimately it bumps into America's most threatening issue, proportionalism, a loaded multi-cultural pistol, which yields our most tense politics. The Abstract sets the parameters: The number of Asian-Americans climbed by 108 percent from 1980-90, Hispanics 53 percent. There are an estimated 6 million Muslims. Immigration from former Iron Curtain countries is up.

We can no longer offer demographic distribution of goodies for race, or ethnicity, or gender; that is something for nothing. We either bolster the merit standard, or we're in for trouble.

A Republican president saying, ''no more something for nothing'' would be reviled. A Democrat, like Mr. Clinton, governing as ''the merit president,'' could fulfill his mandate, and offer America serious change.

Ben Wattenberg is a fellow of the American Enterprise Institute.

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