August 17, 2005

Andrew Sullivan on America's vs. Britain's morals

In the London Times, Sullivan tries his hand at a topic I took on earlier this year in "How Much Ruin In A Nation? UK vs US White Working Class." His is called:

"It's a wonderful life: American society has rescued itself from what seemed to be terminal decline caused by family breakdown. Andrew Sullivan sees a lesson here for Britain."

Sullivan's article represents his usual frustrating combination of perceptiveness undermined by Sully's bulletproof self-absorption (which I outlined in detail in "Sullivan's Travails"). As a gay hedonist, Sullivan is particularly ill-suited to understand the American moral revival, so he makes a number of obvious errors that hurt his sensible points.

For example, his analysis of why social trends have improved in America gets off on totally the wrong foot:

The first thing to point out is that there was never a grand government-organised “war on anti-social behaviour”. Nannying people into being better stewards of their own lives appealed to do-gooding lefties and censorious righties but failed to have much effect. What did help was government getting out of the way when it wasn’t needed and becoming much more adept when it was...

"The most obvious explanation is the somewhat obvious one: people didn’t like living in hellish environments. If they have enough freedom to do something about it, they will. Take the crack epidemic. Crack cocaine was and is ferociously addictive, and in a matter of a few years in the late 1980s and early 1990s it was clearly destroying lives, neighbourhoods and families. Now it’s a fraction of its former power. Informal social pressure simply forced it away."

What in the world is "informal" about the vast increase in imprisonment that helped bring down the American crime rate? Look at the blue line on this graph:

We've more than quadrupled the imprisonment rate since 1975. As Jack Strocchi points out, locking a couple of million bad people up is being a super-nanny.

Clearly, another crucial reason why working class whites in America are now more law-obeying and sober than in Britain is the dynamism of fundamentalist Protestantism in America, but Andrew is reluctant to admit that:

Does America’s religious revival have something to do with it? It would be nice to think so; and the critical lubricant for a healthy society — mutual trust, honesty, good neighbourliness — have rarely thrived without some religious context.

But the centre of the fundamentalist and evangelical Christian rebirth of the past 30 tears — the Bible Belt south — witnessed no greater progress than more secular areas;

Actually, the South has progressed tremendously over the decades. For example, the Christian Science Monitor recently reported:

Americans cheered the latest release of the test called "the nation's report card," which showed marked long-term gains in math and reading for elementary and junior high students. But the loudest applause is due for the South, as it turns out. Largely missed in the initial hoopla was a startling fact:

Much of the national progress reported for 9- and 13-year-olds was driven by gains in the South. For example, while 9-year-olds in the Northeast gained 10 points in reading achievement (the equivalent of a grade level) over the past 30 years, the South gained 24, according to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). While reading scores for 13-year-olds barely budged in most of the United States, the South gained 12 points, more than a grade level.

Andrews blunders on:

and the whole region still has higher levels of crime, abortion, divorce, illegitimacy than much of the rest of the country.

That's mostly because the South has a lot more blacks than the rest of the country, who are much more prone to a variety of social ills. What is methodologically correct is to make black-to-black and white-to-white comparisons.

Blacks, it turns out, are more law-abiding in the South than in the North, being imprisoned only about six times more often than whites in the South compared to nine times more often than whites nationally.

Among whites, the South is a more blue collar region than the parts of the country Andrew prefers. The most instructive comparison for his purposes is the American South versus the working class north of England -- such as Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds, etc. -- where the white population has been descending into drunkenness and thievery, while the white population of the American South has closed much of the gap between itself Northern whites that was once quite wide.

Andrew cites one of his favorite misleading statistics:

Liberal Massachusetts — where gays, for example, can get legally married — has the lowest divorce rate in the country.

But that's because Massachusetts residents don't get married in the first place until they are so old and wrinkly that nobody wants to commit adultery with them. Seriously, a much more comprehensive and informative measure is the one I invented: Years Married. Among 18-44 year old white women, Massachusetts is last among the 50 states with an average of only 12.2 years married out of the 27 years possible. In contrast, most Southern states are up in the 15-16 years married range.

Unsurprisingly, Andrew passes on Steven Levitt's theory:

"Even higher abortion rates in the 1970s might have contributed in some way to lower crime in the 1990s, when those otherwise unwanted children would have emerged into their post-adolescent, most crime-laden years. Because they had been aborted, those people simply didn’t exist."

But the peak years for serious violent crime by youths under 18 were 1993-94, all of whom were conceived after Roe v. Wade.

(When I pointed this out to Andrew, he noted that he said "might have," which I suppose makes him less credulous than 98% of the commentators on the Freakonomics theory.)

My published articles are archived at -- Steve Sailer

No comments: