Bill Bennett and the Cultural-Decline Decline

What’s a conservative Jeremiah to do? Violent crime is down, divorce is down, the welfare rolls are dwindling, fewer women are having abortions, and SAT scores and charitable giving are on the rise. This is the dilemma facing former education secretary and drug czar William Bennett, who this morning held a press conference in Washington to unveil the second edition of his book The Index of Leading Cultural Indicators. Bennett is battling the inconvenient onslaught of good news with three strategems–retreat, partisanship, and dishonesty.

1. Retreat. Bennett concedes in the new book that since the appearance of his first Index in 1994, “there have been many significant positive developments,” and he cites them. He also tells readers, “I have amended some of my own prior views about the efficacy of politics and public policy.”In the 1994 edition, Bennett wrote:
Today the forces of social decomposition are challenging–and in some instances, overtaking–the forces of social composition. And when decomposition takes hold, it exacts an enormous human cost. Unless these exploding social pathologies are reversed, they will lead to the decline and perhaps even to the fall of the American republic [italics Bennett’s]. … They seem impervious to government spending on their alleviation, even very large amounts of spending.
The new edition is considerably more sanguine (it could hardly be gloomier). Bennett writes, “It turns out that some social pathologies are less resistant to legislative action and political leadership than I once thought.” This follows a trend in Bennett’s thinking traceable to at least 1997, when he told a gathering of his fellow conservatives that “these are times in which conservatives are going to have to face the fact that there is some good news on the landscape. We’re going to have to live with it.” (The quote is from David Whitman’s The Optimism Gap.) Earlier this month, Bennett spoke in a similar vein when he defended an offhand swipe at Robert Bork’s sourpuss tome Slouching Towards Gomorrah that George W. Bush made in a recent speech on education. Bennett had reviewed that speech before Bush gave it, though he emphasized at today’s press conference that he didn’t insert the Bork swipe, and that when he read it he didn’t really think of it as a Bork swipe so much as a “synecdoche” for the excessive social-issues pessimism that is common among conservatives. (For a fuller discussion of the Slouching Towards Gomorrah flap, click here.)2. Partisanship. Although Bennett now concedes that many social problems have eased since 1994, he takes care not to give the credit to Bill Clinton, who has occupied the White House since 1993. How could he? Bennett, after all, nearly became chairman of the Republican National Committee a few years back. At today’s press conference, Bennett cited as examples of the “progress on key social indicators” during the 1990s the drop in violent crime in New York City and the drastically reduced welfare rolls in Wisconsin and Michigan. It was hard not to notice that the mayor and two governors who presided over these jurisdictions for the last several years were Republicans. When Chatterbox asked about any contribution the Democratic White House may have made, Bennett said “I think most of the action we talk about has been at the state and local level.” He then conceded that the 1996 welfare-reform bill was significant, and said, “I will give credit to the president for signing that welfare legislation.” But in the next breath he said that Clinton “didn’t want to sign it” and was pushed to do so by the Republican-controlled Congress.3. Dishonesty. There remain, of course, a few social problems that really have gotten worse in the last few years, and Bennett, of course, eagerly cites them: a rising percentage of births to unwed mothers, rising marijuana consumption by high-school seniors, a growing and possibly indiscriminate tendency for doctors to prescribe Ritalin to children suspected of suffering from attention deficit disorder. (This last social problem wasn’t discussed at all in the previous edition.) In Chatterbox’s book, none of these is nearly so serious a problem as that of growing income inequality; but inequality isn’t the sort of thing conservatives fret about, and, in his book, Bennett doesn’t.Given this paucity of bad-news material to work with, it’s understandable that Bennett would be tempted to find some way to move the goalposts he set down in 1994. In two instances, Bennett gives in to that temptation.The first instance concerns Bennett’s discussion of teen-age pregnancy. Unlike unwed pregnancy, which is rising, teen pregnancy is sharply declining. But Bennett leads off his chapter on “Youth Behavior” with the shocking news, presented in large boldface type, that “[b]etween 1990 and 1996, the percentage of all teen-age mothers who are unmarried has increased 12 percent.” This is an accurate but not enormously significant statistic. In effect, it’s a way of saying that the venerable institution of the shotgun marriage is in decline: Teen-age girls who get pregnant are less likely to get married than were teen-age girls who got pregnant during the 1980s.But the more important question is: How many teen-age girls are getting pregnant in the first place? The answer, which Bennett mentions only in passing, is that the teen-age fertility rate is down roughly 13 percent since 1990. The teen-age fertility rate has been dropping for several decades–a tribute, no doubt, to contraception–though for most of that time the teen-age out-of-wedlock birth rate was increasing. Thus the 1994 chapter on “Youth: Pathologies and Behavior” led off with two big charts on teen-age out-of-wedlock birth rates since 1960, which were shown to be rising impressively.But now the teen-age out-of-wedlock birth rate seems to be leveling off–reflecting, Chatterbox supposes, some hard-won equilibrium between teen-agers’ greater use of contraceptives, on the one hand, and their greater disinclination to marry their high school sweethearts, on the other. Since 1990, teen-age out-of-wedlock births have actually decreased very slightly. This is mentioned in the 1999 edition, but only in passing.The second instance of Bennett’s dishonesty concerns incarceration. In the 1994 volume, Bennett defines the incarceration problem as the failure to imprison criminals. “Nearly three out of every four convicted criminals are not incarcerated,” Bennett writes. “Fewer than 1 in 10 serious crimes results in imprisonment.” The 1994 edition does note, in passing, that the U.S. incarceration rate, 4.55 people per 100,000, is “ten times higher than that of Japan, Sweden, Ireland, and the Netherlands.” But the overall thrust of the incarceration section of the 1994 edition is that too many criminals are avoiding jail sentences. The chapter ends with three tough-on-crime quotes, all of which harp on this theme. Here’s one, from criminologist John DiIulio: “There is so much crime without punishment in America today because recent generations of social and political elites, both liberal and conservative, have liberated themselves from the belief that criminals are free moral agents and that publicly sanctioned punishments are what they justly deserve.”Now take a look at the 1999 edition. This time out, Bennett features in large, boldfaced type the statistic, “Between 1990 and 1997, the rate of sentenced prisoners in the United States increased 50 percent.” This is followed up with statistics about the number of people in federal and state prisons and local jails (1.8 million); the states with the fastest-growing prison populations (Texas, California, Louisiana, and Ohio); the likelihood (one in 20) that any given person will do prison time; and so on. The chapter fairly screams, “There are too many people in prison nowadays.” Which is odd, considering that five years ago Bennett was fretting that there were too few.

The Index seemed a smart bit of ideological entrepreneurship when Bennett started it in the early 1990s: Using as a baseline the year 1960, when all conservatives agree the world went to hell in a handbasket, it was able to document vividly the rise in all sorts of societal ills. By now, however, it has clearly outlived its usefulness. Chatterbox predicts a third edition will never see the light of day.