Abstracting the Abstract

October 14, 1994|By BEN WATTENBERG

WASHINGTON — Washington. -- It was Abraham Lincoln who speculated about ''where we are and whither we are tending.'' The best place to continue that speculation is in the newly published annual edition of the ''Statistical Abstract of the United States,'' as always a remarkable work, this one containing 1,011 pages and 1,410 tables.

Whither we seem to be tending is not so great. It's no wonder that people all over the nation are saying there has been a moral breakdown in American life. There were 399,000 births to unmarried women in 1970 -- and 1.2 million in 1991. Back in 1970 just 11 percent of births were to unmarried women; in 1991 the figure was 30 percent. The divorce rate has dipped a bit, but it is still the highest in the world.

Is welfare driving the illegitimacy rate up? It's a tricky question, but the numbers do correlate. Just from 1990 to 1992, cash and non-cash benefits for persons with limited income climbed from $210 billion to $289 billion.

Nor is it a wonder that crime has become the No. 1 issue in the political polls. The violent-crime rate climbed 41 percent from 1983 to 1992, and that followed a big prior increase. (The rate dropped by .01 percent from 1991 to 1992.)

These are the core of the ''values'' issues that well-intentioned liberal government has exacerbated. Smarty-pants sophisticates laughed at the Houston GOP convention in 1992 as tone-deaf Republicans misplayed the issue. But it is at the root of what ails us.

The abstract does not concentrate only on bad news. The number of persons killed in motor vehicle accidents fell from 51,000 in 1980 to 39,000 in 1992. The rate of fatalities per vehicle mile traveled fell 55 percent during the same time.

We're getting lots of new goodies. The number of people with cellular phone service climbed from 682,000 in 1986 to 16 million (!) in 1993.

We've weathered some crises. During the 1980s it was said that Americans couldn't afford to buy a home anymore. But in 1993, almost two-thirds of Americans (64.3 percent) owned their own residences, very close to the all-time high.

It was also said that America wouldn't be No. 1 in the next `D century because other nations were growing their economies faster, particularly those wonderful Japanese. But in 1992 and 1993 America grew far more rapidly than any of the other major industrial nations. (Poor Japan grew by .01 percent in 1993.)

Part of our economic growth came from catfish. In 1980, there were 46 million pounds sold; in 1992 it was 457 million pounds. That's a lot of whiskers.

Professional baseball players did almost as well as catfish-eaters. In 1980 their average salary was $144,000. By 1992 it was $1,029,000. Attendance at baseball games went up from 44 million to 57 million during that time.

There will be much talk about the General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs (GATT) soon, when a lame duck Congress re-convenes after the election to vote on the biggest international trade deal in history. It's big stuff for America; we're going global. In 1993 American exports and imports amounted to $1.36 trillion.

From 1985 to 1993 the number of computers in classrooms soared from 631,000 to 4 million. And where did the schools get money? Well, in 1980 there were $2.4 billion in lottery tickets sold. In 1993 the figure was $25.2 billion, the largest share of which went to education.

As a syndicated columnist, I am sorry to inform you that the circulation of daily newspapers has fallen from 62 million in 1980 to 60 million in 1992, while the nation was growing by 27 million souls. The new population projections show America growing from 258 million people in 1993 to 326 million in 2020. That's 68 million potential catfish buyers. Some of them might even buy newspapers.

There's going to be a lot of talk about ''turnout'' between now and Election Day. There should be. In the last presidential year 51 percent of voters went to the polls; in the last congressional-only year the figure was 33 percent. If you know who is going to bother to vote in 1994, you will know how many congressional seats the Republicans will gain.

And that might give us a clue as to whither we are tending.

PD Ben Wattenberg is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

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