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Is America Turning the Corner?


ANNOUNCER: Brought to you in part by ADM, feeding the world is thebiggest challenge of the new century, which is why ADM is conductingresearch into aquiculture and other new food sources. ADM,supermarket to the world. Additional funding is provided by the JohnM. Olin Foundation, the Lilly Endowment, the Lynde and Harry BradleyFoundation, the United States-Japan Foundation, and the DonnerCanadian Foundation.

(Musical break.)

MR. WATTENBERG: Hello, I'm Ben Wattenberg. Not that long ago,many critics said that America was going to hell in a handbasket. Violent crime rates soared, welfare rolls soared, illegitimacy ratessoared. But now some observers are pointing out that by some veryimportant measures things are looking better. Crime is way down. Out-of-wedlock teenage pregnancies are way down. The welfare rollsare way down. So, which is it, is the sky still falling or isAmerica moving ahead. Joining us to answer these questions are JudgeRobert Bork, the John M. Olin Scholar in legal studies at theAmerican Enterprise Institute, and the author of Slouching TowardGomorrah, Modern Liberalism and American Decline. Wendell Primus,the director of income security at the Center for Budget and PolicyPriorities, and a former official at the U.S. Department of Healthand Human Services. And David Whitman, the author of The OptimismGap, The I'm Okay, They're Not Syndrome and the Myth of AmericanDecline. The topic before the house, is America turning a corner,this week on Think Tank.

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MR. WATTENBERG: It's easy to look at the dark side of what's beengoing on in America. Television and newspapers bombard us withhorror stories about crime, crumbling housing, poverty and neglect. Bad news sells better. But a recent issue of the American EnterpriseMagazine asks an interesting question: Is America turning a corner? And judging from the data presented, the answer seems to be yes. Oncrime, while America still has more crime than it did 50 years ago,the numbers seem to be clearly moving in a positive direction. Violent crimes have declined substantially since 1990, so haveproperty crimes. Why? Lots of reasons, certainly a healthy economyhelps. And so probably does an increase in the length of prisonsentencing. A thug in prison cannot mug, murder or steal. Criminalsmay be deterred by longer prison terms. There's a pretty goodcorrelation. Welfare, the percentage of Americans on welfare hasdropped substantially in recent years as states started pushing forwelfare to work programs. The decline accelerated in 1996 when theCongress passed and President Clinton signed a comprehensive reformbill ending welfare as we knew it. Illegitimacy, teenage births,mostly out-of-wedlock have been dropping, particularly for blacks. The American Enterprise issue goes on to cite favorable downwardtrends in teen drinking, suicides, poverty and divorce. There arealso positive data on moral questions, charitable giving, religiousbelief, and even teens going to church. Are these numbers anaberration, or are the trends for real? David Whitman, why don't youdrive this bus for the beginning of the journey, and tell us thethesis of your book. We've seen these data from this AmericanEnterprise magazine. Give us in this capsule form what your take is?

MR. WHITMAN: What I look at is the progress of the nation overthe last quarter century. And I find that not in every respect, butin the most important respects, life is a lot better today in Americathan it was 25 years ago. There's less violent crime, there's muchless property crime, which accounts for the bulk of all crime. People live longer. People are more likely to graduate from highschool. Scholastic achievement has edged up a little bit, not verymuch. There's more opportunity for minorities. There's moreopportunity for women. There is surprisingly little evidence, Ithink, of real moral decline in the country. At the same time, Ithink that many people don't see the nation as a nation that isprogressing. They see it as a nation in decline. And I think one ofthe reasons why people feel this way is because there is this, I'mokay, they're not syndrome. People think that in their own lives andtheir own communities, their local public school is doing a good job,their congressional representative is okay. Their block that theylive on is safe from violent crime. Their drinking water is clean. But if you ask people these same questions about institutionselsewhere in the country, the state of Congress, the state of thefamily per se, what's happening with violent crime, then people areextremely gloomy, and really see the country falling apart.

MR. WATTENBERG: Wendell Primus, how could you possibly disagreewith anything David Whitman just said?

MR. PRIMUS: Oh, I think America has turned the corner a bit. Butwe'd better pray that it continues to turn the corner. I think wehave some of these indicators, like black homicide rates, have a longways to go to get back to their troughs. Homicide rates are stillvery high. Poverty is still very high in this country. I don't seeany reason why it should be around 13-14 percent. We ought to have alower poverty rate. So, I think each of these indicators are afunction of a whole bunch of policy changes, changes in values, andit's hard to parse out exactly what is driving a particular indicatordown at this particular point. I think the out-of-wedlockchildbearing, you know, that's a very mild change. I think the factthat welfare rolls are coming down as far as they have is notnecessarily good, because we're not taking as many children out ofpoverty by our government programs now as we used to be.

MR. WATTENBERG: Bob Bork, you have a problem with David Whitmansaying everything is getting better since the 1970s, author of --

MR. WHITMAN: Not everything, most aspects.

MR. WATTENBERG: That's what I would say. Your book is, the onewe're referring to, is called Slouching Toward Gomorrah.

JUDGE BORK: It's an upbeat title, you can tell.

MR. WATTENBERG: It's an upbeat title. So, what's your problem?

JUDGE BORK: My problem is, as you look at all the indicators, theindicator is the social pathology sword since the 1960s. Now we havemoderate dislike defines in those indicators. We're still way abovewhere we were in the '50s, say, in terms of violent crime, in termsof abortion, in terms of births out-of-wedlock, stability of marriageand so forth. Maybe the declines will continue but there's noguarantee of that. And we're still living at an unprecedented levelof social pathology compared with the '50s and earlier.

MR. WATTENBERG: Well, I mean, if you take what Bork says andWhitman says, they are not necessarily contradictory. In otherwords, we're saying there was this rise in social pathology, and itgoes from here to here, and now it's come down to here. And you'resaying, well, it's not enough, it's still higher than it was, andyou're saying -- or I'm saying, I don't know about you, David, butthat crime has come down for seven straight years, violent crime,that is not -- the teenage pregnancy rate, particularly the blackteenage pregnancy rate has come down for seven straight years, andit's dropped by 20 percent, the black teenage pregnancy rate. Thatis not a small little ripple.

MR. WHITMAN: The drop in crime isn't small either. There are twoways of measuring crime, as you know, you look at the official crimerate which reflects only crimes that are reported to law enforcementagencies. The other way is to look at these very large criminalvictimization surveys that are done by the Justice Department everyyear since 1973. They survey over 100,000 people a year. Thecriminal victimization surveys, which include unreported crimes, showa huge drop in property crime, a drop of 40 or 50 percent since 1973,and they also showed that the violent crime victimization rate is thelowest it's been since these surveys were started in 1973. Thehomicide is the lowest it's been since 1967.

MR. WATTENBERG: And just anecdotally, if you talk to what used tobe called the crime -- the people who live in New York City, it usedto be called one of the great crime capitals, a lot of it is highlypoliticized giving praise to Mayor Giuliani, but everybody says, gee,you can walk out on the street again.

JUDGE BORK: Yes. Well, clearly the crime rate has come down for--

MR. WATTENBERG: Including people who hate Giuliani say that now.

JUDGE BORK: Yes. Well, the crime rate has probably come down fora couple of reasons, two of which I can mention. One is, much moreeffective policing and longer prison sentences. So that we've gotpeople locked up who would otherwise be committing crimes. That'sgood because we're safer. I don't know that it means that thepopulation is any more moral, we've just a bad part of it, more of itin prison. The second thing is, that it may be demographic. Themost crime is committed, violent crime is committed by young males. They are not as large a part of the population as they were, butthere's a boomlet coming along. And it has been predicted by somerelatively -- some very respectable social scientists that we willsee a quick rise in violent crime when that boomlet hits the properage.

MR. WATTENBERG: I personally am very dubious, because thatboomlet, you stress the 'let' not the 'boom.' It's a little tinydemographic ripple.

JUDGE BORK: Yes, sir.

MR. PRIMUS: I also think the economy has to take some credit. Again, I have said that this a function of many things that are goingon right now. But the economy, the fact that George Bush raisedtaxes, I think had something to do with this. We've got our federalbudget deficit under control. We raised the earned income tax credita lot. We made work pay for female-headed households, and they wentinto the labor force. Study after study has shown that. So, I thinkwe've made work pay a lot more at the bottom, and that has hadsomething to do with it.

MR. WATTENBERG: But, Wendell Primus, you were on this programdenouncing the Welfare Reform Act of 1996. This was a couple ofyears ago, when you had just left the Clinton Administration, as Irecall it, in protest of that legislation. And now you're saying,hey, we really made welfare to work work.

MR. PRIMUS: You have a good memory, Ben.

MR. WATTENBERG: I have a very good memory.

MR. PRIMUS: But these trends started in the late '80s, early'90s, these moderate declines. That is exactly the time whenCongress and the Republican Administrations at that time put togethersome enormous increases in benefits for the working poor, the earnedincome tax credit. We also took the percentage of children gettingMedicaid up 30-40 percent. This last recession, the recession of'90, we had our safety net working much better than we had in therecession of the early 1980s. So, from the period from 1988 to about1996, things were -- we were doing better.

MR. WATTENBERG: I'm sure Bob Bork would agree that the Bush taxcuts really set in motion a wonderful chain of events.

JUDGE BORK: It did, it changed my vote.

MR. WHITMAN: It may be that, as Wendell says, that a couple ofyears from now this welfare reform will prove very problematic, butat the moment, the results are pretty good. There has not be anincrease in childhood poverty, and there's been a phenomenal decreasein the welfare rolls.

MR. PRIMUS: I guess I want to say three things, Ben. One is, Ithink it is a healthy economy, but it's also what we've done in termsof policy for low income Americans. One of the things that the AImagazine doesn't say is for the first time in our history, we havemore paternities established than there were out-of-wedlockchildbirths last year. In other words, we have made a legalconnection between the father and the child. There's a huge backlog,and that's the reason why the rate for one year can exceed the numberof births in one year. But that was because local -- you know, localcommunities started established paternity in the hospital. That waspicked up at the national level. And there's been kind of a quietrevolution saying, we ought to make fathers more responsible fortheir children. So that's a combination of changes at the locallevel, reinforced by a national policy that said we're going topenalize states for not getting that paternity rate up. In terms ofthis Welfare Reform Act. I think the prime aspect of it, the timelimits, really hasn't taken effect yet.

MR. WHITMAN: Wendell raises an interesting point about all this,which is all these social problems were supposed to be 'intractable.' Meaning that there wasn't anything a police chief could really doabout violent crime. There wasn't really anything he could do aboutwelfare dependency. And there wasn't really anything you could doabout teen pregnancy. All of these things have started to come down. In some cases, for example in New York City, the reduction inviolent crime has been very abrupt. It's happened in the space ofthree or four years. And the question this raises is, maybe we cando something about them, we don't know exactly why all of thesethings are changing.

MR. WATTENBERG: So, we have demonstrated the tractability ofintractable problems.

MR. WHITMAN: They're more tractable than we thought.

MR. WATTENBERG: Except here is Mr. Gomorrah here, ProfessorGomorrah, who is --

JUDGE BORK: I'm relatively cheerful. Go ahead.

MR. WATTENBERG: -- who is saying that there's a whole other axisto look at, which is the moral decay axis. And, Judge, you presentthe case.

JUDGE BORK: Well, it's interesting, because you do see notedcommentators saying that they've done surveys, and the Americanpeople have become enormously relativistic in their morals. And theClinton episode is one of the things that one might cite. As somecommentators have said, what it proves if that perjury in the defenseof adultery is no vice, to paraphrase Barry Goldwater. But,apparently adultery is just not considered very serious. Anothersurvey shows that children from the age -- children -- people fromthe age of 18 to 34 are much more permissive about adultery,recreational drug use, recreational sex and so forth, than theirelders are.

MR. WATTENBERG: The data I have seen, Bob, is somewhat different. It's that the Americans say much more than they used to thatpremarital sex is okay, but you still have a very high and veryconstant level of people saying adultery is wrong.

MR. WHITMAN: You know, there's this old adage that in times ofconfusion you turn off the sound and you watch the picture. And ifyou watch the picture of how Americans behave, I don't think you'regoing to see a lot more immoral behavior than you did 25 years ago. I think if people in their private lives think -- you know, womenthink if they're husband was out as a serial adulterer, that would bea serious problem. And I don't think they would be brushing it off. So I think in their private lives, people are still applyingstandards in a fairly rigorous way, that they may not --

JUDGE BORK: They don't apply it to others. They're notjudgmental about others.

MR. WATTENBERG: Well, I know, but you say that they arerelativistic, or not judgmental. I mean, the other word for that,Alan Wolfe's new book, I mean, he says the American people areunusually tolerant. That's another word to describe what you'retalking about, that people are saying --

JUDGE BORK: That's right. And there are limits to what you oughtto tolerate.

MR. WHITMAN: If you look at these surveys that --

MR. WATTENBERG: And you would propose that we ought not totolerate what?

JUDGE BORK: Well, we ought not to tolerate the enormous rates ofabortion we have. What are we aborting about a quarter of the nextgeneration. And another third f the next generation, these arefigures I picked up recently, will be born out of wedlock, and soforth. So you have a public situation which is not all good. Andit's okay to say that the economy is doing well, and that some ofthese things have improved somewhat --

MR. WHITMAN: Well, the abortion rates -- the abortion rate is thelowest it's been since 1975, and the number of abortions in theUnited States is the lowest it's been since 1978. So people arebeing more reticent about using abortion than they were at any timeduring the last couple of decades.

JUDGE BORK: Well, they are. They are to some extent. Thequestion is, how much of that is demographic. But, quite aside fromthat, it's still much, much higher than it was in our history priorto Roe against Wade.

MR. WATTENBERG: But, most --

JUDGE BORK: When it was democratically controlled --

MR. WHITMAN: Judge Bork, I agree with you that there are thingsin this country that have gotten worse, and I'm not trying to be aPollyanna out there saying that there are not serious problems in thecountry.

MR. WATTENBERG: Yes, I'm the Pollyanna here.

JUDGE BORK: Nor am I Kato the Elder --

MR. WHITMAN: But, I think it's also important that we be veryclear about what is the benchmark of comparison. Is it the 1950s, isit a generation ago, 25 years ago, as I'm talking about. If you goback to the 1950s, there are some things that are worse today, crimeis worse, there's more family breakdown, there's more divorce,there's more children born out of wedlock. All of these things havegotten worse. On the other hand, there are many other things thatare important to Americans lives that have gotten a lot better. Wehad almost half the black population living under segregated -- inthe segregated South, they lived that way by law in the UnitedStates, it was a shameful, shameful --

JUDGE BORK: It was that way in the South, yes.

MR. WHITMAN: -- statement on the status of the nation.

MR. WATTENBERG: Where most of the blacks lived at that time.

MR. WHITMAN: There was rampant sexism. Women, half thepopulation, were being denied opportunities in the job market. Poverty was much higher than it is today. People's living standardswere much worse.

JUDGE BORK: Yes, I think --

MR. WHITMAN: People were much more likely to drop out of highschool.

JUDGE BORK: I think the question --

MR. WHITMAN: And so these are all part of -- these are all partof things in people's lives, and they also are measurements ofprogress and decline.

JUDGE BORK: I think some of those things, you talk about women, Ithink that was a cultural thing. I don't think it was actualoppression, but we can pass that. The fact is, if you start in the1970s and measure to today, things don't look as bad as they mightlook, because these pathologies started in the '60s. And they werealready well underway and climbing in the '70s. So that you have togo back to something like the '50s to measure where we are. And Ithink our violent crime rate, our abortion rate, our births out ofwedlock rate, our et cetera, et cetera, et cetera, are all far higherthan they've ever been before in our history.

MR. PRIMUS: Rather than saying America is more tolerant, youcould also say America is more forgiving. I mean, you know, let himwithout sin throw the first stone. I mean, I -- you know, even thereligious community is divided about, you know, the president'sactions. And at some point, you know, I think you have to recognizethat America recognizes that each one of us has some skeletons in ourcloset, you know, we've made mistakes, and the question is, what doyou do now nationally?

JUDGE BORK: When you say, let him who is without sin cast thefirst stone, if that were a relevant remark, I happen to think it wasone of the most magnificent irrelevancies, because it has nothing todo with throwing stones, you would do away with the entire criminaljustice system. Since none of us are without sin, we can't judge orpunish others.

MR. PRIMUS: No, I don't think that follows at all.

JUDGE BORK: Well, that does from that quotation. But, the factis, we talked about -- forgiveness is fine, but I don't want todiscuss the president. But, I would like to -- but this is, strictlyspeaking, relevant in this program. The fact is, that if you say youforgive all kinds of behavior that used to be regarded aspathological or aberrational, then you can call it forgiveness, butit's also relativistic.

MR. WATTENBERG: This is Senator Moynihan's case of definingdeviancy down, that we have made normal and acceptable what didn'tused to be normal and acceptable. And now you have a whole sectionin your book about moral decay, is that right?

MR. WHITMAN: That's right. And again, I come back to this pointof look at what Americans do, not just what they say or think. Ifyou look at the studies that have been done on how much studentscheat in high school and in college, if you look at how many peoplevoluntarily pay their taxes to the IRS, if you look at crime rates,violent crime, property crime, how much people steal, again, over thelast quarter century all these things have either gotten better ornot gotten worse. If you look at people's involvement in church, andtheir commitment to spiritual life, there's very little evidence, ifany, of any kind of decline in the last quarter century. So on themeasurements of how people actually act, how they behave, how oftenthey attend church and so on, there's much less evidence than youmight think that there's any kind of moral decline in the country. And there is, in fact, an article written by a pollster named EverettCarl Ladd, called The Myth of Moral Decline, that came out a coupleof years ago, that pointed out some of these very same statistics. If you look at how much people give to charity, people are giving alot more money to charity today than they did 25 years ago.

MR. WATTENBERG: Let me make the full new paradigm case here, theidea that we've triumphed in the Cold War, that the whole world islooking now toward market capitalism, which I know is an idea thatyou like, that we are the number one scientific, technological,linguistic, demographic, any index you choose to look at the unitedcultural power in the world, and you're sitting there sort like thatold -- who is that Al Capp character?

JUDGE BORK: Joe Bulzolkie (sp).

MR. WATTENBERG: Yes, with the cloud over his head.

JUDGE BORK: No, no, I'm --

MR. WATTENBERG: Wake up and see the sunshine.

JUDGE BORK: I don't know why you think that the fact that we havethis technological advance bears directly upon our moral condition,it doesn't. You can have highly technical, immoral society.

MR. WATTENBERG: You think we have an immoral society?

JUDGE BORK: I think the indicators are bad. I'm not ready to saythat the entire society is immoral. There are lots of intactfamilies, there are lots of families that are raising their childrenwith proper values. I think the trends have been unfortunate for thelast 30 or 40 years, since the '60s. And I think the recentcorrections, which are -- by no means take us back to where we were,are hopeful, but only hopeful.

MR. WATTENBERG: We are running out of time. Let me just ask alittle round robin at the end. Let's just fast forward the clock adecade from now. Will this apparent up tick that we've seen in thelast five, six, seven years at least, I think we're sort of agreed onthat, will that continue? Will the good times roll, David Whitman?

MR. WHITMAN: In the long run I'm an optimist. I'm not sayingthat everything will get better continually. But, I think if youlook at the society over a long period of time you see a lot ofprogress, and I think that will continue.

MR. PRIMUS: I guess I'm basically where David is, although Ithink we're going to have to come back and revisit the welfare act. I think we're going to find some not so good things as a result ofthat. But, I'm -- generally, I'm optimistic, and I think what we'redoing right now for young dads, and changing our culture there isvery good.

MR. WATTENBERG: And you think that it's been the governmentthat's been a principal agent, or one principal agent of thistransformation?

MR. PRIMUS: Part of it, yes.

JUDGE BORK: I think it depends entirely on whether there's areligious revival. I think the ultimate moral health of the societywill depend upon that. And that doesn't mean church going just, itmeans a religion which is not therapeutic for the individual, butwhich sets external standards that people are intended to live by,and people accept that. If that happens, we will have a long termregeneration of moral values. If it doesn't I don't think we will.

MR. WATTENBERG: We have had several mass religious revivals inAmerican history, is that right?

JUDGE BORK: Yes, there were three. There's an argument aboutwhether there's a fourth now or not.

MR. WATTENBERG: Okay. Thank you, Judge Robert Bork, DavidWhitman, and Wendell Primus. And thank you. For Think Tank, I'm BenWattenberg.

ANNOUNCER: We at Think Tank depend on your views to make our showbetter. Please, send your questions and comments to New River Media,1150 Seventeenth Street, Northwest, Washington, D.C. 20036, or emailus at thinktank@pbs.org. To learn more about Think Tank, visit PBSOnline at www.pbs.org. And please let us know where you watch ThinkTank.

(Musical break.)

ANNOUNCER: This has been a production of BJW Incorporated, inassociation with New River Media, which are solely responsible forits content. Brought to you in part by ADM, feeding the world is thebiggest challenge of the new century, which is why ADM is conductingresearch into aquiculture, and other new food sources. ADM,supermarket to the world. Additional funding is provided by the JohnM. Olin Foundation, the Lilly Endowment, the Lynde and Harry BradleyFoundation, the United States-Japan Foundation, and the DonnerCanadian Foundation.

(End of program.)




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