Is the Sky Falling?

Kevin Drum notes that David Brooks fears the sky is falling (“Social trust has plummeted. Society has segmented. The share of Americans born out of wedlock is now at 40 percent and rising”). He also notes that while many feel this to be the case, in any number of ways, things don’t appear so dire:

  • Violent crime rose during the 60s and 70s but it’s dropped steeply for the past 30 years. Violent crime rates today are one-third the rates of the early 80s.
  • High school graduation rates are a little hard to get a handle on. The official statisticssay that graduation rates have risen steadily for all races over the past 40 years. James Heckman says that a better look at the data suggests that graduation rates have actually fallen by 4-5 percentage points. But an EPI study using high-quality longitudinal data suggests an increase of 3-4 percentage points. (A lot of the differences in these statistics depend on whether you count students with GEDs.)
  • The non-elderly poverty rate fell during the 60s and has stayed relatively flat since then(though the current economic downturn has temporarily sent it up a few points). The Census Bureau produced a new measure of poverty last year, but it didn’t differ a lot from the standard measure.
  • Illicit drugs tend to go in and out of fashion, which makes it hard to draw firm conclusions about drug use in general. Roughly speaking though, it’s probably safe to say that drug use among teens and young adults went up in the 60s and 70s, declined in the 80s, rose during the early 90s, and then began falling modestly starting in the late 90s. Illicit drug use today is certainly higher than it was during the first half of the last century, but it’s been on an overall downward trend for the past 30 years.
  • Marriage rates are down and divorce rates are up.

With these stats, things look pretty good. Now you could look at this and say that marriage rates are down, so the world is going down the tubes. But I could counter that with the fact that teenage birth rates are at a 70 year low. 70 years! So much for those darn kids and the sex. But then you could counter with something else, like churchgoing rates dropping. And so on. And so forth.

The problem with “the sky is falling” essays is that they always cherry pick the statistics they like, and then ignore the others. That doesn’t stop every generation from bemoaning the lack of quality today and remembering the past in rose-colored glasses. Or, perhaps, they’re right. We don’t know.

There should be some more systematic way to measure things like this. Or, at least I wish someone would attempt to make a more thorough examination of this phenomenon over time. As I’ve said before, I bet there are some awesome editorials in newspapers from the 1930s and 1940s bemoaning the advent of radio, and how it would rot kids’ minds.

Once again, I’ve applied for research funding to do this exact work, and was denied. Should any funders be reconsidering, I’d still love to do it.

[Cross-posted at The Incidental Economist]