Olasky Books

Families, Politics, Baseball, Movies

We all tend to favor life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, but what happens when the pursuit ruins children’s happiness (and sometimes keeps them from life itself)?

Melissa Kearney’s The Two-Parent Privilege (U. of Chicago, 2023) shows that the national Wars on Poverty and Drugs have been less effective than the War on Family that the cultural left has waged for sixty years. In 1960 5% of births were to unmarried mothers: Now the figure is about 50%. Some reasons—worse job prospects for working class males, better prospects for women—have economic roots. Some are cultural: Kearney notes, “The conventional mores in the United States today are to treat matters of family and family formation with a dedicated agnosticism, avoiding any suggestion that one type of family might be somehow preferable to another family type.”

Kearney notes that state laws turned the most important contract, marriage, into the most unusual: One partner can unilaterally break it. The legal change benefited some adults but worsened outcomes for children, who mostly ended up poorer materially and often bruised psychologically. Kearney rightly recommends restoring “a norm of two-parent homes for children [and improving] the economic position of men without a college level of education.” How to do that is hard, especially when popular culture exalts individual freedom over children’s security.

Rob Henderson’s Troubled (Gallery Books, 2024) recognizes the problems of poverty but shows that “childhood instability has a much stronger effect than family socioeconomic status for a variety of important outcomes, including education.” Henderson spells that out: “People who grew up in poor families are not more likely to be unhappy as adults. But people who feel they were unloved as children are significantly more likely to be unhappy. For happiness, it’s better to be poor and loved than rich and unloved. Of course, the worst is to be poor and unloved. A similar pattern has been found for health—childhood instability, but not poverty, is linked to poor physical and mental well-being.”

Henderson’s own experience leaves him well-positioned to write this: mother a drug addict, father nowhere in sight, and ten foster care placements left him seeing no place as home. He backs up with statistics his claim that instability is worse than poverty. At the low end of educational attainment, only 65% of foster kids graduate from high school, compared with 87% of kids categorized as “socioeconomically disadvantaged.” At the high end, less than 3% of children with foster care backgrounds graduate from college, compared with 11% of children from the poorest fifth of families.

Ismar Volić’s Making Democracy Count: How Mathematics Improves Voting, Electoral Maps, and Representation (Princeton, 2024) makes a strong numbers case for instant runoff voting in single-winner elections. One argument against that has often been that a two-party system pushes candidates toward running positive campaigns that will graft in voters from the middle. Now, though, both Democrats and Republicans believe motivating partisans is more important than developing consensus, and a system that would no longer discourage third-party voting could be helpful.

Turning to a happier use of math: Russell Carleton’s The New Ballgame (Triumph, 2023) provides useful statistical background to accompany baseball-watching. Some is unsurprising: In 2022 the average team scored .47 runs per inning, but if the leadoff man gets on the run expectancy leaps to .87 runs. Some I didn’t realize: The average major league player now is larger than 90% of players before the 1990s. The average shortstop now (traditionally a little guy) weighs as much as the average first baseman (traditionally a big guy) in 1982. The reason isn’t drugs: Baseball’s crackdown has not stopped the trend to large players. Maybe it’s the emphasis on power rather than agility, with arms becoming more important than legs.

Film students and devotees will benefit from Hollywood and the Movies of the Fifties (Knopf, 2023), a 600-page overview of an industry changed by the collapse of the studio system, the advent of television, and the roller coaster of politics. Author Foster Hirsch is unusual in avoiding the typical tendency among film historians to blast 1950s products for social conformity. His chapter titled “The Red Menace” notes that communism was a menace and some anti-communist films were truthful and moving.

In brief: The yearning on every page of David Leonhardt’s Ours Was the Shining Future (Random House, 2023) is for a Democratic Party stripped of social radicalism and a Republican Party that would embrace compassionate conservatism. Streets of Gold: America’s Untold Story of Immigrant Success (Public Affairs, 2022) is a useful corrective to today’s pessimism about this country’s ability to absorb immigrants in a way that prospers all.

Marvin Olasky

Senior Fellow, Center for Science and Culture
Marvin Olasky is a Senior Fellow with Discovery Institute and its Center for Science and Culture. He taught at The University of Texas at Austin from 1983 to 2008 and edited WORLD magazine from 1992 through 2021. He is the author of 28 books including Fighting for Liberty and Virtue and The Tragedy of American Compassion.