Some Comfort from the Social Index

BEN WATTENBERG

March 17, 1993|By BEN WATTENBERG

WASHINGTON — Washington.--Americans like to know where they are and whither they are tending (to quote Lincoln). We measure things with regularity and ingenuity in the commercial arena. Each month, for example, the Census Bureau publishes the ''Index of Leading Economic Indicators,'' which presents 11 data series to give us a clue about what comes next.

Alas, we do not do as well in the social realm -- just where we are hurting these days. There have been sporadic attempts to put together a ''Social Indicators'' compendium, but none has survived to regularity. Too bad; studying regular data collections can open our eyes.

Comes now William Bennett, the former shake-'em-up Secretary/Czar/Chairman of Everything during the Reagan presidency. Mr. Bennett is the editor of, and has written the introduction to, a new ''Index of Leading Cultural Indicators,'' which lays out 20 behavioral trends. These include some of the most troubling aspects of our condition: illegitimacy, drugs, crime, divorce, education and even television viewing.

Mr. Bennett has done a fine job, for a first crack at it. He has presented a fair and objective array of data, and examined the numbers. His main point is sobering, accurate, consequential -- but I think somewhat off the mark in one respect. We are shown where we are, but not whither we are tending.

Mr. Bennett writes: ''Over the last three decades we have experienced substantial social regression. Today the forces of social decomposition are challenging -- and in some instances overtaking -- the forces of social composition.''

The key words are not only the sad ones of ''regression'' and ''decomposition,'' but ''three decades." Many of Mr. Bennett's three-decade trends back up his depressing view: Illegitimate births -- way up; violent crime -- way up; divorce -- way up; SAT scores -- down; expected prison time for a crime -- way down; television viewing -- up.

Even with some of the positive trends presented (drug use, drop-outs and infant mortality are down) it is an appropriately gloomy assessment. We have taken a hit, and we are paying for it.

But data compendiums can open our eyes. For me, this one has crystalized some thoughts, although not the way Mr. Bennett has suggested.

Suppose we look at our condition not from 1960, but from roughly 1980. Still using Mr. Bennett's data, a somewhat different picture emerges. For example: Divorce rate -- down; prison time -- up somewhat; rate of children in welfare families -- about the same; SAT scores -- about the same; daily television viewing -- about the same, but with better selections due to the advent of cable. (Illegitimacy remains up. The crime rate is high, but not growing, if alternative government data series are used.)

In fact, as I count it, since 1980 more of Mr. Bennett's trends are positive, or neutral, than negative.

Might something be happening other than ongoing social regression? Perhaps we hit bottom around 1980, and then society began, slowly, to react in a healthy way. Might it be that while we still suffer from decomposition, and are worse off than we were, we have turned the corner?

This has interesting implications. Might conservatives care to say that Reagan-Bush policies helped arrest the flow of social deterioration? Might conservatives stop grousing about having lost the contest for the culture?

Might Democrats be smart enough to build on the slow-but-positive trends, and then claim success on the social issues in 1996?

Indeed, Mr. Bennett is eclectic in his selection of some potential remedies. He endorses Clinton ideas like two-years-and-out for welfare and boot camps for young offenders. He favors conservative ideas like public-school choice and urban enterprise zones.

There is a lot to chew on, and some items that are missing. Smoking rates, not presented, are way down; it's testimony that behavior can be modified by negative publicity. What about discrimination? What about proportionalism and quotas? What about behavior-related health problems?

No matter. Great data compendiums take years to develop; they accrete. This one, published jointly by Empower America, the Heritage Foundation and the Free Congress Foundation, is a good start. It tells us where we are.

Ben Wattenberg is a fellow of the American Enterprise Institute.

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