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Monday, April 1, 1985

A Reviewers Notebook: Good News and Bad

John Chamberlain’s book reviews have been a regular feature of The Freeman since 1950. We are doubly grateful to John and to Henry Regnery for now making available John’s auto biography, A Life with the Printed Word. Copies of this remarkable account of a man and his times—our times—are available at $6.00 from The Foundation for Economic Education, Irvington-on-Hudson, New York 10533.

Ben Wattenberg, as a political partisan of the late Senator “Scoop” Jackson of the State of Washington, has been at odds with his political party for a good many years. A Free Trade Democrat, he thinks the special interests and the collectivists of various stripes have laid their cuckoo eggs in a nest that is not rightfully their own. He blames the media, both print and electronic, for much of the sad state of affairs. Hence the title of his new book, The Good News is the Bad News is Wrong (New York: Simon and Schuster, 431 pp., $17.95).

Wattenberg rips the conventional wisdom to shreds by constant recurrence to his own profession as a demographer. He will be called a Pollyanna or a Dr. Pangloss by many, but actually he doesn’t believe it is the best of all possible worlds. He merely thinks we are holding our own ground in a number of important ways, and he has the demographic evidence to prove it.

He begins with life expectancy, which, in the western nations, keeps lengthening from decade to decade. Then he shifts to the birth rate, which, in the non-Malthusian parts of the world, has been going down. (He calls it the birth dearth.) The rumors of a Population Bomb he deems to be utter nonsense for the United States at least.

The birth dearth, he says, could hurt our country, which depends on a reasonable increase in its population to keep the economic system going. Fortunately, immigration to this country shows no signs of slackening. The worries about illegal immigration do not bother Wattenberg in the slightest. Anyone with the gumption to get up and go can make a welcome addition to the working population so far as Ben Wattenberg is concerned.

The Baby Boom that occurred after World War II may have been responsible for many of the youthful excesses of the Sixties, but Wattenberg is satisfied that the “do your own thing” idiocy of the Baby Boomers is a phenomenon of the past. What we now have is an Adult Boom. The Young Urban Professionals, or Yuppies, are now getting married and starting households of their own. They may settle for 1.7 children per family, but the children of immigrants will make up a needed difference. At any rate, the Yuppies will be buying new dwelling space, both of the split level variety and condominiums. The high mortgage rates won’t stop them. The construction boom will spill over into other booms. Wattenberg doesn’t necessarily approve of the Federal deficit, but he doesn’t see it as killing prosperity in the near future if sincere efforts are made to get it under control.


Wattenberg thinks the bad news about unemployment is more than compensated for by the good news about employment. His own reading of the statistics here collides with anything you might ]earn by listening to the TV anchormen. The smokestack industries may not be what they were, but the unemployment in steel and automobile towns has been mitigated by what has been happening in other towns that are often just over the horizon. Industrial jobs stood at close to 20 million in 1970. The figure is practically the same today, but the jobs have shifted from steel factories to plants turning out computers, high-tech office equipment and robots.

Meanwhile there has been a vast explosion in the service industries. There were some 600,000 new businesses started last year. They are what has been bringing the unemployment figures down to somewhere around 7 per cent, which is close to the “frictional” margin. Wattenberg thinks it significant that the median period of unemployment even at the depth of the recent recession was only 10.1 weeks. And unemployment compensation took care of most of that.

Wattenberg thinks the teen-age unemployment figures are extremely misleading. Kids who are still in school get listed as job-hunt-ers, but it is no great tragedy if they remain unemployed in any regular sense until their school days are over. This goes for black kids as well as white. The most important thing about adolescence, says Wattenberg, is that it is soon over. Eventually the teen-ager will become an adult employee.


Wattenberg does not deny that much of the hard data about our education system is bad. The averages for our SAT, or Scholastic Aptitude Tests, have been declining over a long period of time. But this could be attributable to the fact that we now keep many more children in school for longer periods. The unintelligent take the tests along with the academically gifted. This brings down the average scores. But even with this concession to the egalitarians the SAT marks have recently started to go up. Wattenberg thinks we could be doing something right.

When it comes to revamping curricula, however, Wattenberg is all for listening to the critics who think our new standards for Excellence in Education demand a greater attention to so-called core revisions. He wantsto see fewer Mickey Mouse courses. He sees no reason, however, to get rid of driver training and a few other “practical” courses. “After all,” he says, “who wants to live in a country where pregnant teenagers—overdrawn at the bank, unable to cook even a simple souffle—crack up the car.”

Wattenberg considers that our Bad News Bias keeps our politicians from making reasonable compromises with those whose prime concern is with the size of the budget. He is no libertarian, and he believes in the concept of the Safety Net. But his ardor for the Welfare State has cooled rapidly over the past few years. As a neo-conservative Wattenberg finds himself at home with such figures as Irving Kristol. This means he is part of the new Fabian drift to the Right.

  • John Chamberlain (1903-1995) was an American journalist, business and economic historian, and author of number of works including The Roots of Capitalism (1959). Chamberlain also served as a founding editor of The Freeman magazine.