America's Crack-Up : Government Can Wage War, Build Roads, and Desegregate Schools But It Can't Save Us from Ourselves.

Jonathan Rauch is a contributing editor of National Journal in Washington. His last article for this magazine was "A Search for the Soul of Japan."

AFTER IT WAS OVER, MY FRIENDS IN LOS Angeles all said they had cried, most more than once. They felt that during the rioting they had seen society positively fall to pieces around them; they sounded like people who had seen combat. One woman I know, who grew up in L.A. and has always thought of it as her home, decided that she wanted to leave. A man said: "It's horrible. You just can't imagine what it's like unless you've seen it."

But that's not quite right. The looting and violence were unique only insofar as they were compressed into a short time. Looting goes on every day in America; 2% of the merchandise in stores is quietly stolen by customers or employees (twice as much as in Japan). Violence has become ubiquitous, and not just in the big cities: In the past two years, the murder rate increased fastest in small cities and towns. All of what happened in the rioting also happens day in and day out all over the country--but spread out so that the explosion becomes a sort of grinding hum of decay.

Sometimes the grinding becomes unbearable. One day the Washington Post ran a story about a woman who was stabbed to death on the street. There was no motive. Just the killing, while her children, one 3 years old and the other 10, watched. Inside the same day's paper was an article about a man who was using a public phone in Washington. Three young men in a truck pulled up and demanded that he "get the f - - - off the phone." When he didn't move quickly enough, one of them shot him. Then, while the wounded man rolled on the ground with a 9-millimeter slug in his back (he lived), the boy proceeded, casually, to use the phone.

Right about that time, I got a call from my sister. There is a quiet internal breaking point where one concludes that the status quo is not "normal," and she had reached it. "Do you think," she said, "that society is falling apart?"

Institutionally, the country is in fairly good shape. The economy and political system here, despite their flaws, are in better condition than in all but a few other countries. Yet I believe that my sister's question is now the most important one facing the country. Is society falling apart? More specifically, is the moral infrastructure critically weakening?

It used to be that only religious kooks and gay-bashing right-wingers asked such questions. Many more of us are asking them now. More people are sensing that something has gone wrong, which is why, in this election year, values is a buzzword for Dan Quayle and Bill Clinton alike. Yet on neither side are the politicians quite coming to grips with what they, and we, are up against.

For 60 years, since the New Deal, Americans who wanted to solve national problems have thought and talked about government programs and policies. And now this mode of thinking and talking suddenly seems inadequate, maybe even archaic. Today, government is increasingly beside the point: not because government has changed but because our problems have.

TO UNDERSTAND WHAT HAS CHANGED, THE FIRST STEP IS TO THINK ABOUT "moral infrastructure" in a way that gets away from religion and ideology and finger-pointing and instead looks at fundamentals. The usual way of talking about "morals"--Dan Quayle's way, for instance--is divisive because it implies that the speaker has an exclusive franchise on righteousness. But there is a non-divisive way to talk about the moral infrastructure, too. The key is to focus on what almost all of us can agree are five indispensable, future-building values.

Despite what the Christian Right and the Republican Party would like you to believe, these five are not the property of any particular religious group or ideology or political party or, for that matter, sexual orientation. Anyone can practice them or ditch them. They are critical for making people and societies better off over time. In the longer term, a society, or an individual, that gets all five right cannot be stopped, absent bad luck. A society, or an individual, that gets them wrong cannot be saved, absent good fortune. The five are:

Lawfulness and honesty.

Education.

Thrift--saving and investing.

Diligence--the willingness to work hard and do one's best.

Strong family--meaning a family that is dependable for its members, especially the children. Two-mother households might qualify; the care of the children and solidity of the commitment, not the gender of the parents, is the issue.

All five pay off over time. To obey laws and keep promises is to sacrifice immediate gratification in hopes that others will do the same and all will benefit. To go to school and study hard, to save and invest, to work hard, to nurture children--each is to build for the future at some cost in the present.

Taken together, these could be aptly called a constructive ethic. A society or person with a strong constructive-ethical base is in a building phase. Such a society--postwar Japan, for instance--is likely to enjoy improved fortunes over time and will have a distinct advantage over its less constructive competitors.

If you accept, for argument's sake, the usefulness of this framework, then the question that is so important in America today could be restated. What is the condition of the constructive ethic? Are we behaving, to the extent we once did or now should, in ways that improve the future?

It turns out that four of the five are at least roughly measurable. The exception is diligence. We know how many hours Americans put in at work, and the figures show that Americans continue to be among the developed world's hardest-working people, with a workweek that lags behind Japan's but is well ahead of, say, Germany's and France's. But we have no way to measure how hard we work, nor how well. Not long ago I talked to a recent college graduate who bitterly complained about having to look for a job. Why didn't employers come to him? I walked away griping about our lazy young. However, if I had to guess, I'd say that the work ethic is still relatively strong among the vast majority of Americans.

But what about the other four? Here the critical period of change stretches from about the mid-1960s to the present--a period framed (coincidentally?) by two riots in Los Angeles. A quick reading of the indicators looks something like this:

LAWFULNESS AND HONESTY: The most damaging form of lawlessness is homicide. It is damaging first because of the slaughter, second because of the sense that society is coming unglued. Homicide is also relatively easy to measure accurately, since almost all murders get reported every year.

In America, the homicide rate has about doubled since the early 1960s--and remember that a homicide only happens if the victim dies. James Q. Wilson, the UCLA political scientist, estimates that if today's medical care were still like the care in 1957, the murder rate would be much higher than it is.

Violence is particularly dire for blacks; a young black man in Watts or the South Side of Chicago, for example, is likelier to be killed than was a soldier during an average tour in Vietnam. Black men suffer not only from violence itself but also from the middle-class fear and hostility that inevitably result. In Atlanta, poor children can't play organized baseball because Little League coaches are afraid of the neighborhoods; in Washington, even some black cabdrivers say they avoid stopping for young black men. One rainy night not long ago, I watched cabbies of all races go speeding past a young black man in my neighborhood, and I knew they would have stopped for me. These drivers were afraid. One (black) cabdriver told the Post: "Now when they rob you, they want to shoot you anyhow."

However, violent lawlessness is not just a "black" or a "ghetto" problem. Though the level of killing is higher among black males, the rate has risen considerably faster among white males, among whom homicide has about doubled. Whites have been doing their best to catch up.

Guns are part of the story here (their numbers have quadrupled since 1950) but not the whole story. "In this town," a former Washington police chief has said, "the weapons have always been out there; it's the behavior of the young people that's changed." People didn't used to get shot over earrings, sneakers, candy bars; they weren't car-jacked at gunpoint. Even mass murder is up: Seven of the 10 worst cases have happened in the past decade.

The vagaries of record keeping make it harder to get a clear picture of nonfatal crime, but what we can see is sobering. The arrest rate for young Americans is eight to nine times what it was in 1950. About one in 11 American males aged 16 to 34 was, in 1989, in jail, on parole or on probation ("figures far in excess of the proportions in previous decades," writes economist Richard B. Freeman).

No other developed country has a comparable problem. Americans rape each other 27 times as often as Japanese, rob each other 157 times as often; we rape and rob each other four times as often as the Germans. And imagine the costs! Former Clemson University economist David N. Laband estimates that theft costs the American economy something more than $600 billion a year. As those costs rise, the country's economic vigor is sapped.

EDUCATION: Here the statistics are not so frightening. But they're not encouraging, either. In 1983, a national commission declared that a rising tide of mediocrity was putting America at risk. There are few signs that the years since then have brought much improvement. Test scores and anecdotal evidence paint a broadly consistent picture of mediocrity and torpor.

Scholastic Aptitude Test scores are stuck well below where they were 25 years ago. In 1990, the National Assessment of Educational Progress found that most high school seniors perform below eighth-grade level on math; in no state did students perform at their grade level. Almost half of 17-year-olds couldn't express 9/100 as a percent. A quarter did not know that Congress is part of the legislative branch. More than 40% couldn't place World War I between 1900 and 1950. General Motors built a new high-tech plant in Hamtramck, Mich. "And we couldn't run it," Robert C. Stempel, chairman/CEO of GM, told Fortune magazine, "because our people didn't understand what we were asking them to do. We literally had to stop the assembly line to get the reading and math skills up."

What in the world is going on here? Not reductions in spending. Since World War II, spending per student has risen sharply, even after adjusting for inflation. Look instead at what we demand of ourselves and our children. The average American eighth-grader spends less than an hour a day doing homework, as opposed to three hours a day watching TV. Japanese students do about as much homework in a single day as American students do all week. They spend more days in school. They spend more hours in school. They work harder on education than Americans do, which goes a long way toward explaining why they know more.

THRIFT: The rising America of our great-grandfathers was by world standards a thrifty place. Before World War II, America invested more of its economic output than almost any developed country, as Japan does today.

Things have changed. America now saves less (as a share of the gross national product) than any other major economy: a quarter of Germany's savings, a sixth of Japan's. Here the 1980s are the locus of change. Individuals and companies saved less than before, but the really dramatic change was in the enormous budget deficit, which sucks up investment capital to pay the government's monthly bills. In the 1980s, the blossoming federal deficits used up more than half of America's private savings, which could otherwise have been invested to improve the future. We've been throwing a party and charging it to our kids.

The reason the government behaved this way is clear enough: The public wanted it to. Polls have shown that people want more spending in virtually every domestic category but reject higher taxes. That's why we cannot end the spree.

STRONG FAMILY: This is, almost certainly, the most important element of all. The speed and scope of family breakdown in recent decades, among minorities and non-minorities alike, is breathtaking. There really has been nothing like it in our history. At the heart of the story are divorce and illegitimacy.

The divorce rate more than doubled between 1960 and 1980. These days, half of first marriages end in divorce. Still more disturbing: In 1960, the year I was born, 5% of American babies were born out of wedlock. By 1988, the proportion had reached a staggering 26%. And, though the rate rose quickly among blacks, it rose much faster among whites. "Stereotypes notwithstanding," writes Nicholas Eberstadt of the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, "by 1988, black teen-age mothers accounted for fewer than one-seventh of the illegitimate births in the United States; nearly one-quarter of the children born to white women in their early 20s were out of wedlock."

The rise of single parenthood is, almost certainly, the most far-reaching change in American life in this century. Not for years will the effects be fully fathomed. In 1970, 12% of American children lived in homes headed by single mothers; today, it's almost one in four. Again, this is not just a "minority" problem: White children are more than twice as likely to live with just one parent today as in 1970. At least half of all children born in the 1970s and 1980s will spend part of their childhood in a one-parent home. If a newborn could calculate odds, he'd have to assume that one of his parents would leave him.

The link to poverty is overwhelming. Children living in fatherless homes are five times likelier to be poor; nearly 75% will experience poverty before adulthood. Murphy Brown notwithstanding, about half of white children in single-mother families are poor. Poverty is just the beginning of a long chain that leads to school dropouts, juvenile prisons, psychiatric hospitals, and so on, and so on.

So, where do we stand? Taken as a group, the indicators suggest, if you will, a riot in slow motion. The news isn't all bad, but at this stage you would have to live in a hole to be unworried. It is hard to avoid wondering, too, whether an advanced country can behave this way for long and get away with it. "There are large political entities that weaken and die because of moral weaknesses," says University of Maryland political scientist William A. Galston, a longtime adviser to Democratic campaigns.

High crime, mediocre education, low saving, dissolving families: These are not the only problems in America today. But they are now the most important ones.

And what, then, do we do about them?

ON A SWEATY AFTERNOON last year, at a Japanese embassy reception, I met one of Washington's most respected thinkers on social policy. (He leans liberal and Democratic; I can't name him because right now he's a government official, and they're not supposed to be too frank.) We started talking about the country's social problems and the way his outlook had changed over two decades. Twenty years ago, he thought that well-aimed government programs could improve conditions by 40%. And today? He thought and replied: more on the order of 5%.

After the rioting, as President Bush picked through the wreckage, everyone demanded that he do something. The conservatives declared that government was the problem (so cut taxes in "enterprise zones" and sell public housing), the liberals declared that government was the solution (so start or expand programs--anti-poverty programs, jobs programs--on the New Deal and Great Society models). In other words, both sides replayed tapes recorded almost 30 years ago, during the Johnson-Goldwater campaign of 1964.

What wasn't said, but what I suspect a lot of people were wondering, was: What if there's nothing much that George Bush or the Congress can do?

This isn't so much because government is inherently worthless, as conservatives often say; nor is it so much because a once-idealistic public has turned selfish and sour, as liberals often say. Rather it is because our problems have changed-- in ways that defeat the postwar toolbox of public policies, much as viruses mutate to resist vaccines.

Partly that is a price of success. Though conservatives hate to admit it, the government went a long way toward solving problems that big central governments are suited to solve: waging or preparing for war, making transfer payments (writing checks, in other words), tearing down local laws that block opportunity, building big national infrastructure projects. The federal government won the Cold War, it created Social Security and Medicare and other safety-net programs, it dismantled segregation, it built the national highway system. Then it turned around to discover that while the easy problems were getting solved, the tougher ones were still there.

In fact, they were getting worse. Two or three decades ago, we thought in terms of technological problems and technological solutions. We said, "If we can send a man to the moon, we can (here insert favorite unmet social need)." And now we awaken to a world where our leading national problems are bewilderingly un-technological.

In 1960, a teen-ager was twice as likely to die of cancer as to be killed by somebody else; only 20 years later, the odds were reversed. Cancer went down, killing went up. While we developed the medical technology to prevent and cure cancer, we lost our grip on the social technology to prevent and cure violence, which in theory is more preventable. This seems almost absurd. Who could ever have imagined?

The sorry truth is that we don't know what causes widespread erosion in the moral base. We do know that the ideological, one-cause answers are more and more hollow. Is the economy the culprit? That wouldn't explain why, in the late 1960s, violent crime rose quickly, while male unemployment fell sharply and wages rose robustly. Can government programs reverse the trend? After three decades, the existing ones certainly have not. The best you could say is that such programs may have slowed the decline, and even that much is not clear. Are the Great Society programs, then, the cause of decay? Welfare may partly explain why welfare families are disintegrating, but it can't explain why middle-class families also are disintegrating.

No, something is going on that we don't understand--something much less responsive to the postwar array of technology and programs and laws and bureaucrats. Government can help or hurt somewhat, but it is increasingly irrelevant. It is not the problem, and it is not the solution. Not anymore.

When I explain this, people accuse me of giving up. And that very accusation is, I think, a symptom of how our mind-set has narrowed to an increasingly archaic fixation on government: If you're not proposing to either start or end a government program, you're proposing to "do nothing." In Japan, that kind of thinking doesn't wash; it is taken for granted there that the family sector and community sector can "do things." Not everything, but a lot.

Americans, of course, cannot be Japanese, nor want to be. The Japanese rely heavily on shaming, an ancient social technology that no longer sits as well with Americans individualism as it once did. Misbehaving Japanese schoolchildren are told that they're disgracing their school, and it means something. That wouldn't work so well in America, where we stand or fall morally on our own record. In Japan, the general assumption is that any child can succeed in school by working hard, and as a result many kids do work hard. But Americans rightly take pride in recognizing and catering to individual differences.

Washington can probably help somewhat, and there are a lot of ideas floating around: revamping the child-support laws, redistributing the tax burden away from families with children, appointing children's advocates in divorce cases, linking federal student loans to grades, and more. The trouble is that even most optimists don't claim that their laundry lists of pet programs and reforms could effect much more than a fractional solution. (The one major exception is the deficit, a government-caused problem that only the government can solve.)

Partial solutions are worth trying. But what about the bulk of the problem? I do not know what to do, and I do not know who does know. However, it is becoming clear that the answers lie in the community sector, the household sector, the business sector, the church and social-club sector. The so-called "communitarian" movement, which stresses that rights come with responsibilities, is on to something. The tools of reform will be expectations and ostracism, far more than laws and programs.

A necessary first step is for more people to see that the real ethical issue today is not whether your values are traditional but whether they are responsible. Having a strong constructive ethic does not and should not mean condemning atheism or homosexuality or sex out of wedlock; it does mean condemning people who are irresponsible toward the future--people who break laws or who don't try hard or, above all, who walk away from children. It may mean reintroducing a shaming vocabulary that allows people other than religious right-wingers to speak of contempt toward the future as "wicked."

Finally, it is becoming increasingly clear that, by arguing obsessively about government, we act like the man who loses his keys in a dark place and goes to look for them under a light. We will be able to do much more, much faster, if we can jettison the liberal-conservative fixation on government, which preoccupies many of our wisest heads and so squashes fresh thinking. If we intend to be honest about the problem of moral decay, and if we hope to deal with the main part of it, we need to forget about government for a while and start fumbling in the dark.

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