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America in Moral Decline

Today, the exalted status of economics in our public debate is being challenged in some rather intriguing places. For example, Wall Street Journal editor Robert Bartley recently observed, “If America is to decline, it will not be because of military overstretch. Nor the trade balance, Japanese management secrets or even the federal deficit. If a decline is underway, it’s a moral one.”

Former Education Secretary William Bennett sees evidence of such decline in research identifying the most serious problems in public school classrooms. In 1940, running in the halls, chewing gum, and talking in class headed the list of teacher’s disciplinary concerns; today, robbery, rape, alcohol, drugs, teen pregnancy, and suicide are most often mentioned. Bennett argues, “If we turn the economy around, have full employment, live in cities of alabaster and gold, and this is what our children are doing to each other, then we still will have failed them.”

Bennett believes one way to improve our national debate is to counterbalance, the Commerce Department’s index of leading economic indicators with a collection of some 19 “leading cultural indicators” including the divorce rate, the illegitimacy rate, the violent crime rate, the teen suicide rate, and even hours devoted to television viewing. While these cultural variables are only crude indicators of our nation’s social health, they do provide a more complete, and more accurate, empirical assessment of the condition of American society than is available from economic variables alone. Using economic variables—even under-utilized variables like business productivity and hourly compensation rates—it is difficult to explain public opinion polls showing that a majority of Americans believe the quality of life in America has declined over the last three decades. To understand such perceptions, one has to consider that since 1960, violent crime has risen 560 percent, illegitimate births have increased 400 percent, teen suicides have risen 200 percent, divorce rates have quadrupled, average SAT scores have dropped 80 points, and the proportion of children living in fatherless families has increased three-fold.

In essence, then, Bennett’s leading cultural indicators are to our national debate what statistics like saves, fielding percentage, and earned run average are to baseball: reminders that economic production (or run production) isn’t everything. Indeed, a society which manages to make great gains economically, but fails to progress in the cultural areas outlined by Bennett is likely to be no more successful in the long run than the 1931 New York Yankees. That ball club, which featured sluggers like Babe Ruth and Lou , scored more runs (1,067) than any other team in major league history. But New York still finished 13 and one-half games behind the Philadelphia Athletics in the 1931 American League pennant race, in large part because the Yankees’ lousy pitching more than offset run-scoring prowess.

Family Policy, June, 1993, pp. 5-6