Moral Misgivings Mar Happy Days
July 4, 1999
by Irwin Stelzer
The Sunday Times (London)
04 July 1999
Americans are spending today grilling hot dogs on their barbecues, or at a baseball game, or participating in some patriotic celebration of our victory in the war for independence from you lot. We aren't great students of history -- unlike Europeans, Americans are more interested in what tomorrow might have to bring than in what yesterday brought -- but 76% could identify to pollsters the country from which we fought free in 1776. Almost 20% said they have "no opinion", and 2% thought France was our long-ago oppressor.
Oddly in this period of prosperity and falling crime rates, some 55% of Americans say that the signers of the Declaration of Independence would be disappointed by the way the United States has turned out. By which they seem to mean two things, according to Karlyn Bowman, Washington's most astute poll reader. First, "Americans are uneasy about the moral fabric of the country," she says. Asked to chose from a list of the most important issues facing the country in 2000, 21 percent said education, 20 percent moral values, and 11 per cent crime. These are non-economic, fabric-of-society issues.
The killings in the Littleton, Colorado high school have unnerved Americans, continues Bowman, especially since the shooters were middle-class, white youngsters, living in two-parent homes. The usual suspects -- poverty, broken homes, ghetto envirnoments -- are innocent. Who, then, to blame? Although the media, 1960s permissiveness and a host of other culprits are being named, no one is quite certain just where to point the finger. So Americans worry.
The second conclusion to be reached from the widely held opinion that the signers of the Declaration would be disappointed were they to survey today's America is that most folks feel that their government is a mess. In 1958 73% of the public said they trust the government in Washington to do the right thing; now, only 31% have a similarly sanguine view of the goings on in the nation's capital. Call it cynicism, or call it better information as to what politicians do with their time and our money, it boils down to unhappiness with the way incumbent politicians are running the country.
That is reflected in two things. One is the phenomenal early popularity of George W. Bush, now tipped to capture the Republican presidential nomination. Little is known about the Texas governor, except that he seems amiable, has had some success reforming his state's educational system, has cut taxes, and, most important of all, is not from Washington, D.C. Bush, or George W., as he is called to distinguish him from his father ("shrub" is another, less pleasant sobriquet for the younger and shorter Bush), has been able to raise an amazing $35 million in campaign contributions, no one of which by law may exceed $1,000. That's twice what Al Gore, an incumbent vice president with all the advantages of being able to announce this or that successful government effort from the steps of Air Force 2, has raised. Distance from Washington seems to lend enchantment.
The second confirmation of popular disatisfaction with and disaffection from government is revealed by several bits of the polling data that Bowman compiles. President Clinton's job rating, which stayed high during the worst of the Monica period, and was at 61% in April, has fallen to 55%. The Republican leaders in the congress are held in even lower esteem. Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott polls 28% positive, 41% negative, and House Speaker Dennis Hastert is viewed positively by 28% of Americans, and negatively by 34%.
To those of us with a libertarian bent, the news that Americans don't have very much regard for government is cheering. And it may reflect the fact that most Americans attribute their current affluence to their own efforts -- with a bit of credit for Federal Reserve Board Chairman Alan Greenspan thrown in. Anyone who wants a job has one, real wages are rising, and wealth in the form of shares and houses is increasing at an astonishing rate. Little wonder that 84% of Americans rate the economy as "very good" or "somewhat good", and that 76% expect it to remain that way a year from now. Indeed, when asked whether they expect the seven-year long economic recovery to "end this year, early next year, late next year, or later than that?", fully 60% chose the latter option. Americans expect the good times to keep rolling -- and this poll was taken before Greenspan decided not to spoil the party by raising interest rates only a little, and shifted from a tightening to a neutral stance, giving share prices an unexpected fillip.
That Americans give government little credit for the happy state of economic affairs is not surprising. Some few who study data know that Washington is taking a record portion of their earnings, and doing little with it that affects their lives. Others rely on what their eyes tell them. They see that private courier services such as Fed Ex work well, while the government-run postal system delivers only some of the mail some of the time. They see that the government-operated school systems tragically fail to educate the youngsters in their charge, while privately run schools -- even cash-strapped parochial schools -- succeed in educating and graduating the children fortunate enough to attend them. They see a government that ran out of missiles and couldn't get its helicopters in the air in Kosovo, and that had to rely on Tony Blair for spine.
So we barbecue our hot dogs and steaks (yes, our steaks are quite safe enough to eat, European scare mongers notwithstanding), watch our ball games, use cheap competitive air fares to visit granny, prepare for a good, productive week in the office and the factory, and switch channels when the evening news turns to doings in Washington. That's the American way.
Irwin Stelzer is a Senior Fellow and Director of Economic Policy Studies for the Hudson Institute. He is also the U.S. economist and political columnist for The Sunday Times (London) and The Courier Mail (Australia), a columnist for The New York Post, and an honorary fellow of the Centre for Socio-Legal Studies for Wolfson College at Oxford University. He is the founder and former president of National Economic Research Associates and a consultant to several U.S. and United Kingdom industries on a variety of commercial and policy issues. He has a doctorate in economics from Cornell University and has taught at institutions such as Cornell, the University of Connecticut, New York University, and Nuffield College, Oxford.