Will: Dumbing down the economy
Two phrases that Daniel Patrick Moynihan put into America’s political lexicon two decades ago are increasingly pertinent. They explain the insufficient dismay about recent economic numbers.
Moynihan said that when deviant behaviors — e.g., violent crime, or births to unmarried women — reach a certain level, society soothes itself by “defining deviancy down.”
It de-stigmatizes the behaviors by declaring them normal. And sometimes, Moynihan said, social problems are the result of “iatrogenic government.”
In medicine, an iatrogenic ailment is inadvertently induced by a physician or medicine; in social policy, iatrogenic problems are caused by government.
When the economy grew by just 2.6 percent in 2014’s fourth quarter, The New York Times headline cheerfully said “Economy Pulls Ahead.” The story said the U.S. economy is “an island of relative strength” in a world facing “renewed torpor and turmoil.” This was defining failure down.
The Wall Street Journal said “U.S. Economy Hits Speed Bumps,” as though speedy growth had been normal for a while. The speeding had consisted of one quarter (2014’s third) of 5 percent growth. But the economy had gone 43 consecutive quarters without 5 percent growth, the longest such period since the government began keeping the pertinent records in 1947. And even with this third quarter, growth for 2014 was just 2.4 percent, making this the ninth consecutive year under 3 percent.
There also was unmerited triumphalism about November’s job growth of 353,000. This was just the fifth month of 300,000-plus growth in the 68 months since the sluggish recovery began in June 2009. In the 1960s, there were nine months of 300,000-plus job creation — and at its highest, in 1969, the nation’s population was nearly 118 million smaller than today’s.
In the 1980s, there were 23 months of 300,000-plus jobs, and the nation’s population in 1989 was 73 million smaller than today’s 320 million.
Economic weakness — new business formations are at a 35-year low — is both a cause and a consequence of alarming cultural changes. In 1960, 12 percent of 25- to-34-year-olds were never married; today, 49 percent never have been. Although the population was 27 million larger in 2010 than in 2000, there were fewer births in 2010.
The progressive project of maximizing the number of people dependent on government is also aided by the acid of insecurity that grows rapidly when the economy does not. Anxious and disappointed people are susceptible to progressives’ blandishments about the political allocation of wealth and opportunity — “free” this and that.
By making slow growth normal, iatrogenic government serves the progressive program of defining economic failure down.
George Will writes for the Washington Post.