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Meaningless Modern Myths Mislead America

During the past year you have heard all about it: Americans no longer are joining community groups to the extent they did in the good old days. In the widely quoted phrase of Harvard’s Robert Putnam, people are “bowling alone” instead of joining bowling leagues, and dropping out of other social organizations as well. It shows that we’re a society increasingly alienated, selfish and pessimistic. Surely we need government programs to stimulate volunteering.
This disturbing message has found its way into endless thumb-sucking media commentaries and stentorian political pronouncements. But, fortunately, it is just another meaningless myth devised from misleading statistics.

Putnam’s grim imagery was in my mind last weekend at two public school events very unlike those I experienced as a youth. The first was the Annual Spring Auction to raise extra money for the Tops program at Seward School on Seattle’s Capitol Hill. Seventy or so parents, teachers and cooperative local businesses produced the kind of fabulously successful fund-raiser one usually associates with a posh private school. The several hundred attendees were almost recklessly enthusiastic. Cakes typically went for $100, a small tray on which second graders had decorated tiles–hardly Jackie Kennedy memorabilia–sold for $400.

The next night my wife and I joined hundreds of “Friends of Garfield Jazz ” at the Westin Hotel to hear two truly inspired student jazz ensembles–and, on Mother’s Day, no less, to attend another fund raiser. More thousands of dollars were raised by eager volunteers.

When I was a kid we were lucky if the parents helped us sell hot dogs at the school football games. So, I sat there last Sunday, thrilled by professional sounding trumpeters and drummers (none of them my child, I should add) and found myself muttering happily, “Whatever happened to ‘Bowling Alone’?”

It’s not just these busy school parents programs, or the other organizations whose meeting announcements increasingly engulf my postal box, that lead me to conclude that the “bowling alone” picture is false. It’s also a recent analysis by economist Robert J. Samuelson in the Washington Post. Samuelson that shows how Putnam’s numbers, selectively derived from a University of Chicago survey, mislead by comparing memberships in the same organizations from a generation ago to today.

Yes, membership in the Red Cross apparently has “slumped 25 to 50 percent.” Farm groups are down, so are unions. But the whole set of “group” categories is too rigid. Americans keep making up new groups and associations to replace or supplement the older ones, and these newcomers are left out of the old categories. The school auction I mentioned has been going on for only four years, the jazz gala for only six. Overall, Americans actually are volunteering more, and in more ways, than in the past.

But we can’t seem to take credit for our progress. We are that rare civilization that cultivates myths that put it in a bad light.

Take the widely spread “fact” that there are now more African-American males in prison or jail than in colleges and universities. This is the kind of statistic that is meant as a kind of vague, all-purpose zinger. Whatever conclusions one might draw from the comparison, however, the facts on which it is based turn out to be exaggerated. According to government figures, in 1993 some 379,000 black males 18-24 were enrolled in post-secondary schools, while 179,000 of the same age group were in jails and prisons. That comparison is serious enough, but to get the more shocking figures of the myth you must compare the population of college age black males in college with the population of black males of all ages in jails and prisons. In other words, to validate the myth, you have to compare apples with oranges, an old trick.

Then there is the myth that corporate downsizing and the development of free trade treaties is resulting in a net loss of American jobs overseas. This is perfect made-for-TV theater, conducive to scenes of stunned workers and managers who have lost their jobs. Some have, of course. Some always have, for capitalism destroys even as it creates. At least temporarily, life is hard for people caught in change. But the alternative is government management of the economy, and experience world-wide shows that that approach creates few new jobs outside government and ultimately leads to stagnation and much worse job prospects.

As George Gilder reports, the relatively free U.S. has outperformed all the other economies in job development. “We’ve created some 35 million net new jobs in the last 30 years–while the Europeans, for example, have created almost no net new jobs outside of government consumption.” While the Japanese have done better, they have fallen behind the U.S. To make the myth of job evaporation seem real, therefore, you must adopt a partial blindness: you focus on the disappearing old jobs and you just ignore the more numerous new ones.

What difference do such myths make? Plenty. As Nicholas Eberhardt of the American Enterprise Institute points out in his new book, “The Tyranny of Numbers,” we are a country that makes public policy with a reverence for statistics that other lands reserve for tradition or religious texts. When journalists and politicians fall for the tricks of myth making, the damage can be long-lasting.

Forty years ago Alfred Kinsey produced his famous and influential scientific study on “Sexual Behavior in the Human Male” and another on the human female. These purported to show widespread promiscuity and a preoccupation with sex that begins almost in infancy. The whole concept of “normal” was challenged, and the resulting intellectual furor helped to rationalize and justify the later excesses of the sexual revolution.

Only in recent years have Dr. Judith Reisman and other investigators actually checked out Kinsey’s data and methods and uncovered scandalously shoddy work–and worse. Some of the small children, for example, apparently were “tested” pro-actively to get the desired sexual arousal, which Kinsey’s workers then duly recorded. The unmentioned source of reports on the sexuality of 800 pre-pubescent boys was one single adult man, a pedophile. The adult test population included numbers of prison inmates, which hardly provided an objective sample for sexual or any other social norms.

But at the time Americans were so enthralled with science and statistics that, as Reisman wrote, “No one had the mind-space to recognize what they were looking at.” A little sensible skepticism might have prevented a lot of wrong conclusions–and myth-making–about American society.

Bruce Chapman

Cofounder and Chairman of the Board of Discovery Institute
Bruce Chapman has had a long career in American politics and public policy at the city, state, national, and international levels. Elected to the Seattle City Council and as Washington State's Secretary of State, he also served in several leadership posts in the Reagan administration, including ambassador. In 1991, he founded the public policy think tank Discovery Institute, where he currently serves as Chairman of the Board and director of the Chapman Center on Citizen Leadership.