It's not as bad as you think

January 18, 1996|By George F. Will

WASHINGTON -- In 1930 in America average life expectancy at birth was 58 years for men, 61 for women. By 1990 it was 71 and 79 respectively.

Until the 1930s the average manufacturing worker toiled nearly 50 hours a week with few rights or benefits. In 1996 about 80 percent of all workers have employer-paid health insurance.

In 1940 most Americans were renters, most households had neither a refrigerator nor central heating, 30 percent lacked inside running water, coal fueled most furnaces and stoves, wood was the second most-used fuel. More than a fifth of Americans lived on farms, fewer than a third of which had electric lights and only a tenth had flush toilets.

In 1940 one in 20 Americans had a college degree; 50 years later, one in five did. In 1945 most households did not have a telephone. In 1994 (when the typical new home was 40 percent larger than its 1970 counterpart), 81 percent of households had VCRs, 37 percent had personal computers.

Industrial output

As late as 1948 retirement was no certainty: about half the men over 65 worked. In 1995, after decades of supposed ''deindustrialization,'' industrial production was 40 percent higher than in 1980, 90 percent higher than in 1970, 350 percent higher than in 1950.

In 1964 there were fewer than 100 black elected officials nationwide; by the early 1990s there were about 7,000.

Between 1929 and 1933 output declined almost 25 percent. In the worst postwar recessions (1973-75 and 1981-82) output declined just 4.9 and 3 percent respectively. In 1976 the average supermarket offered 9,000 products; 15 years later it offered 30,000.

We are richer, freer and healthier, and we work at less exhausting jobs than ever before.

So why during this epoch of unprecedented achievement has America become preoccupied with perceived failure? That question is subtly answered in Robert Samuelson's new book ''The Good Life and Its Discontents: The American Dream in the Age of Entitlement, 1945-1995.''

Entitlement mentality

He says postwar progress bred an entitlement mentality which in turn bred disappointment that the nation was not living up to unattainable promises. The belief was that we were entitled to whatever is possible; that a rapid, uninterrupted and painless increase in prosperity is possible, and that such prosperity would banish most social ills. Mr. Samuelson says this ''almost dreamlike concept of progress'' was accompanied by a decline in the sense of responsibility.

Mr. Samuelson believes that the mobilization of society for the Second World War blurred the distinction between governmental and private responsibilities. The postwar agenda of unideological ''problem-solving'' politics erased the distinction between problems that can be solved and conditions that must be endured. For example, in 1970 the man who had been Lyndon Johnson's chief economic adviser said recessions are ''fundamentally preventable, like airplane crashes and unlike hurricanes.''

Thus did economics, once the ''dismal science'' that explained costs and limits, become the ''cheery science,'' encouraging the delusion that proper politics is (like another postwar chimera, the ''science of management'') merely a matter of experts' techniques.

Such ''pragmatism'' became embittering: All problems were considered solvable, so enduring problems must be explained in terms of someone's incompetence or wickedness.

As Mr. Samuelson says, ''Good was no longer good enough.'' As Lyndon Johnson said, it had to be a Great Society. And why not, John Kennedy having said, ''Man holds in his hands the power to abolish all forms of human poverty.''

The illusion that government is the source of economic growth and is responsible for the ''fair'' allocation of wealth encouraged a sensibility demanding the ultimate entitlements -- to security and peace of mind. The premise was that social conflict and personal discontent arise from material scarcities.

But economics, far from being a ''hard'' science, like physics, has more accurately been called a ''science of single instances'' -- hardly a science. The hubris of economists professing competence to control America's complex modern economy, combined with democracy's disposition to spend avidly and tax reluctantly, produced inflations that only recessions could quell.

''Compassionate'' postwar capitalism featured giant corporations happily serving as welfare states, promising job security and other benefits, and not attending to competitiveness until jobs had to be shed by the tens of thousands. ''Compassionate'' government, encouraging the expression of personal desires as group grievances, generated public distrust by becoming a fountain of synthetic, and meaningless, ''rights,'' such as the right to ''educational equality.'' Education and health care were, Mr. Samuelson notes, more ''equal'' when there was a lot less of each.

If the electorate can be inoculated with Mr. Samuelson's thesis -- that ''we need to curb our casual use of government'' and ''either we reconstitute our expectations, or we condemn ourselves to perpetual disappointment'' -- his book can elevate this year's political argument.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

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