The Family That Prays Together, Starves Together

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Michael Gerson is the rare public intellectual who defies even the stopped clock cliche—he manages to be wrong pretty much all of the time. The ever-earnest former Bush speechwriter and current Washington Post columnist combines a Naderite's grasp of economics with an Ed Meese-ian appreciation for individual liberty. If all of that weren't bad enough, Gerson manages to express his perpetual wrongness in nauseatingly flowery prose that he occasionally peppers with insulting condescension (I bet he's great at parties!).

Gerson's column from last week lectures us on the virtues of poverty, and expresses his hope (from his fine home in the Northern Virginia suburbs, written on his MacBook, naturally), that the recession will awaken in America a "less material orientation in life," and "expand.. our horizons—like an escape from the dungeon of our own desires." (See what I mean?)

Gerson may be right in some ways. I don't doubt that temporary hardship brings people together, or that families probably spend more time together when they can't afford to do much else. I just don't know if that's enough to say that poverty has an "upside," or that I'd make the leap from that, as Gerson does, to the conclusion that severe recession is capitalism's way of punishing us for our materialism, filling us all with Gerson-esque virtue. Or as he puts it, "Sometimes grace can arrive through an unexpected door."

But even setting aside Gerson's odd pining for dust bowl hardship, he really stumbles when he starts talking about crime, and attempts to draw parallels between the crime rate and the economy.

During the Great Depression—with about a quarter of Americans out of work—crime and divorce declined. During the relative prosperity of the 1960s and 1970s, crime rates shot up and families broke down.

Recessions and depressions are brutal beasts that stalk the stragglers, especially retirees and the poor. There is too much inherent suffering during a recession to ever welcome it. But times of economic stress, it appears, can also be times of cultural renewal. "One reasonable hypothesis," argues James Q. Wilson, "is that the Depression pulled families together, and this cohesion inhibited crime." Many Americans who struggled through the Depression adopted a set of moral and economic habits such as thrift, family commitment, savings and modest consumption that lasted through their lifetimes—and that have decayed in our own.

So Gerson wants to credit the drop in violent crime in the 1930s to Tom Joad and the family singing hymns while roasting shoe leather over an open fire. Roosevelt acolytes are fond of crediting the New Deal. But there's a far better explanation: the repeal of alcohol prohibition. Homicide rates started to climb in 1920 (the year after enactment of the Volstead Act) and peaked in 1933, the year alcohol prohibition was repealed. Rates of burglary, assault, and robbery also began a dramatic fall in 1934, just after prohibition was repealed.

Also, since when were the energy crisis, price controlled, stagflation 1970s a decade of "relative prosperity?" Relative to what? The 1820s, maybe. But certainly not the 1950s, 1960s, 1980s, or 1990s. And aren't the low-crime, family-values 1950s generally considered the decade that spawned American consumerism?

The 1990s also defy Gerson's thesis. The 1990s economic boom was accompanied by a dramatic drop in crime and, as I noted in a post earlier this week, significant drops in the rates of divorce, abortion, rape, teen pregnancy, and incredible improvements in several other social indicators.

Gerson's theory neatly confirms his biases: Hard times encourage us to eschew fleeting pleasures, to embrace faith and Gerson's notion of virtue, and all of this leads to less crime and more stable families. The crass consumerism brought by prosperity, on the other hand, brings laziness, greed, and moral turpitude.

Unfortunately for Gerson, there's just not much evidence to support any of that.

NEXT: Obama's Budget Message, Drinking Game Version

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  1. When does the Washington Post meet the fate of the Rocky Mountain News? Looks like losers like Gerson will hasten that day.

  2. “Sometimes grace can arrive through an unexpected door.”

    And sometimes we meet fate on the road we take to avoid it.

    queue zen windchimes and monk in orange robes raking in rock garden…

    WTF?!!

    Gerson, you’re first when the WaPO starts laying off. Bitch.

  3. queue zen windchimes and monk in orange robes raking in rock garden…

    All right, windchimes, get in line! And quit shoving!

  4. Corporal Upham: “War educates the senses, calls into action the will, perfects the physical constitution, brings men into such swift and close collision in critical moments that man measures man.”

    Captain Miller: I guess that’s Emerson’s way of finding the bright side.

  5. All right, windchimes, get in line! And quit shoving!

    Ahem, “cue”. Sorry, I had my printer queue on my mind when I was writing that. One days soon, I’ll be unemployed these things won’t happen.

  6. In that Gerson is always wrong, annoyingly wrong, and puts his words together poorly… how did he ever become a “former” Bush speech writer?

  7. Leave me out of this!

  8. I would say that recessions do cause people to reexamine their budgets and cut out elements that they feel they don’t need. Which very often are things that might be described as “materialistic”.

    Wierdly, although the left usually rails against materialistic consumerism, it’s the Democrats today who are telling people they have some kind of social duty to spend money so that others will have jobs.

  9. When your cash is gone and your credit is way way way overextended and you lose your job, it is pretty easy to quit pissing away your money and find you some Jesus. It takes discipline to be frugal and charitable and faithful when everything is peachy dandy and you have more than enough of everything.
    As far as spending more to help others keep their jobs, screw em. Maybe it’s time they learn how the real world works.

  10. Unfortunately for Gerson, there’s just not much evidence to support any of that.

    That’s the beauty of arguing from faith, you don’t need evidence.

  11. Hazel, they are also somewhat more likely to have the belief that money cures social illnesses – if only it’s taken from other people first. Just one more contradiction the dialectic never quite worked out.

  12. Dear Mr. Gerson
    Since poverty is so grand, I’ll take that pesky paycheck off your hands and help you attain nirvana you douche bag.

    Love,
    Not a douche bag

  13. Wow…Gerson makes Michele Malkin and Glenn Beck look thoughtful by comparison. Well, maybe not Malkin…

    …and maybe not Beck…

  14. I would say that recessions do cause people to reexamine their budgets and cut out elements that they feel they don’t need. Which very often are things that might be described as “materialistic”.

    In my current job, layoffs have already occurred, with more in the making. We’ve already been asked to commit to a one day a month furlough.

    Reasonably, anyone in this circumstance would start cutting back on discretionary spending to, you know, buttress their budgets in case the worst happens.

    According to Robert Reich, when faced with this, one should go out and purchase a new Jet Ski, flat screen tv, and plan a grand vacation at some fancy resort. Because all this cutting back on discretionary spending is hurting the economy.

  15. Hey, never let facts get in the way of prejudices!!

    .. Hobbit

  16. According to Robert Reich, when faced with this, one should go out and purchase a new Jet Ski, flat screen tv, and plan a grand vacation at some fancy resort. Because all this cutting back on discretionary spending is hurting the economy.

    This is an example of where I think terms like “the economy” become problematic. It’s too general. It makes it sound like when you eliminate waste from your budget, that you’re causing some kind of diffused harm to the whole of society. Rather, what you are doing is sending price signals to the makers of specific things that you have decided to eliminate from your budget. If those people get laid off, it’s because there isn’t enough demand for their products. Not because of some sort of nebulous harm done to the economy as a whole. And if they keep making products there isn’t enough demand for, then it is wasted labor, which provides no benefit to anyone, not even “the economy” or “society as a whole”.

    The Democrats don’t seem to get the fact that workers have to produce something that people want and/or need, which can only be known through price signals. Telling people to shop so that someone keeps his job making unneed crap isn’t any different from subsidizing some make-work project.

  17. with about a quarter of Americans out of work — crime and divorce declined.

    Hey dipshit crony fuck, divorces ain’t free and with 25% of Americans out of work, that’s less targets for thieves to steal from, less money for the weapons of crime, and no money for drug use that you would consider a crime.

    The Depression made it harder to do everything. Oh, and there was money from the government given to unemployed people for the first time ever. So, how ’bout you put your bible down, read some Mark Twain, and learn what smart people can see through the cracks.

  18. The guy gets paid to write words, not care about them. Shit, he used to write words for Bush, so maybe not caring is his specialty.

  19. Nothing like some asshole that attended a primary school that now charges $11K a year for tuition telling people that being poor is good in anyway. Having come from meager means, putting myself and family through school as blue collared skilled labor I feel confident in the next statement.

    Fuck him. The man has never known “economic stress” and he is among the last people on earth that needs to be lecturing on the virtues of being poor. Fuck being poor or “economically stressed.”

  20. Gerson reminds me of Ann Coulter arguing that Prohibition was a good thing because there were supposedly fewer heart attacks during the Prohibition years.

    It’s as stupid a statement taken at face value as it is when subjected to any sort of reasonable analysis.

  21. FDR does deserve some credit for repeal of prohibition, and thus the lower crime rate.

  22. Gerson, with typical fascist double-talk, endorses recessions and depressions in the following language:

    ‘Recessions and depressions are brutal beasts that stalk the stragglers, especially retirees and the poor. There is too much inherent suffering during a recession to ever welcome it.’

    Then Gerson says that this may be the time to make the best of a bad situation by rediscovering the virtues of thrift, etc., whose absence helped bring about this crisis in the first place.

    Gerson goes on to say:

    ‘It has always been a quiet fear of capitalists that the success of free markets would eventually undermine the moral basis for free markets — that decadent prosperity would dissolve values such as prudence and delayed gratification.’

    Gerson backs this up with a quotation from some socialist hack nobody ever heard of, a dude named Joseph Schumpeter:

    ‘Capitalism creates a critical frame of mind which, after having destroyed the moral authority of so many other institutions, in the end turns against its own.’

    Joseph Schumpeter – isn’t that the guy *Reason* keeps citing in support of the value of ‘creative destruction’ – wringing inefficiencies out of the economy by punishing bad behavior (like lack of thrift, etc)?

  23. What the fuck, they traded Kellen Winslow to fucking Tampa Bay? Fuckin’ A. Depression indeed.

  24. What the fuck, they traded Kellen Winslow to fucking Tampa Bay? Fuckin’ A. Depression indeed.

    WTF indeed. My research indicates that he was drafted 30 years ago. That someone is willing to trade for a 51 year old tight end that hasn’t caught a pass for more than a decade is pretty amazing.

  25. Besides relegalizing booze, other things contributed to lower crime. After the Crash, people stopped having so many babies. U.S. fertility rates dropped during the 30s, then the men went off to fight WWII. Congress had also passed immigration quotas in 1924, so that source of young men of crime-prone-age was limited. As might be expected, crime started “exploding” when the G.I. Generation’s Boomer kids hit their adolescence.

    The lower crime rates of the 1990s can also be attributed to the smaller cohort of teenage proto-hoodlums generated post-boom.

    Anybody else remember this quip attributed to Abraham Lincoln: “God must love the poor. Why else would he have made so many of them?”

    Kevin

  26. According to Robert Reich, when faced with this, one should go out and purchase a new Jet Ski, flat screen tv, and plan a grand vacation at some fancy resort. Because all this cutting back on discretionary spending is hurting the economy.

    Is there a source for him saying such a thing? Not that I doubt that he would say something like that?

  27. written on his MacBook, naturally

    It’s so fitting that Gerson is a Mac guy.

    (ducks)

    Say, did anyone else notice that the neurosurgeon who operated on Anders on BSG last week or whenever was “PC Guy” from the Apple commercials?

    And in keeping with this Apple theme, I’d love to see Justin Long attacked by a zombie shark. No…two zombie sharks.

  28. The data from the 1930s strongly suggests we could end Prohibition again and see a similar crime drop.

    Doubt that will make Gerson’s next column.

  29. I’m. . . agreeing. . .with Talldave???

  30. “One reasonable hypothesis,” argues James Q. Wilson, “is that the Depression pulled families together, and this cohesion inhibited crime.”

    Is that what the director of our local family violence agency means when she sees battered women delaying leaving their abusers because there’s no hope of finding a job?

    The Democrats don’t seem to get the fact that workers have to produce something that people want and/or need, which can only be known through price signals.

    According to Democrats the purpose of a job is to pay a preferably-unionized worker a (high) living wage. High productivity just limits the number of employees.

  31. Gerson’s claim that economic hard times have salutary effects on character reminds me of pschco-environmentalist deluded musings about primitive man living in blissful harmony with nature and each other absent avarice and intra species strife.

    Yeah, they didn’t have cars but they were sooooo spiritual.

    Dumbassery in both cases.

  32. Say, did anyone else notice that the neurosurgeon who operated on Anders on BSG last week or whenever was “PC Guy” from the Apple commercials?

    He was great in Live Free or Die Hard too. He’s also in He’s Just Not That Into You. I only know because my little wife bounces up and down excitedly and says “It’s the Mac guy!!” whenever she sees him.

  33. Oops that’s the PC guy you were talking about.

    Poor PC guy, his career didn’t take off like Mac’s.

  34. Is there a source for him saying such a thing? Not that I doubt that he would say something like that?

    It was an NPR/Paul Krugman News Hour editorial. I looked for the actual audio to link to that, but I couldn’t find it. To be fair, here was his exact point (paraphrased of course):

    He was talking about how in our current economic recession and condition, people are cutting back and saving. And this was a perfect example of what’s good for the individual, isn’t necessarily good for the whole. Ultimately, Reich didn’t say “the individual” should go out and buy a jet ski etc., what he was alluding to is that the benevolent government was going to take money from those people who were…hoarding it, and then spend it back into the economy (where benevolent government felt spending was most… benevolent) and in turn, this would help the economy.

    Despite his meaning sounding more reasonable than my overly simplistic description, in many ways, his prescription is worse. As people (like me) start taking care with our discretionary spending, his proposal would result in my paycheck being smaller nonetheless and then funneling monies to top-down planned projects which, as history has shown, usually hurt the economy worse than they help. Everyone loses. Despite my prudent saving, I still lose money, and that money is pushed towards things which neither serve my interest nor my family’s, and redirect employment opportunities away from other areas of the economy.

  35. What the fuck, they traded Kellen Winslow to fucking Tampa Bay?

    That’s what he gets for having a staff infection, the troublesome little bitch. It’s not like Brady Quinn can pass, anyway.

    Look on the bright side, dude. If Mangini keeps up his .479 winning percentage, it will be a real boost to the Browns since they rejoined the league.

  36. Hard times encourage us to eschew fleeting pleasures…

    …and embrace cannibalism. Who’s with me?
    Might I add that Caylee’s ribs were delightful?*

    *It’s all in the marinade.

  37. If life seems jolly rotten
    There’s something you’ve forgotten
    And that’s to laugh and smile and dance and sing.
    When you’re feeling in the dumps
    Don’t be silly chumps
    Just purse your lips and whistle – that’s the thing.

    And…always look on the bright side of life…
    Always look on the light side of life…

  38. Say, did anyone else notice that the neurosurgeon who operated on Anders on BSG last week or whenever was “PC Guy” from the Apple commercials?

    Yeah, I saw that. I threw up in my mouth a little at that.

    And Anders kinda looks like smug, hipster-doofus Mac-guy? Coincedence? I think not.

    And in keeping with this Apple theme, I’d love to see Justin Long attacked by a zombie shark. No…two zombie sharks.

    I’ll settle for a fatal tramplin’ by a phalanx of Sixes.

  39. He was great in Live Free or Die Hard too. He’s also in He’s Just Not That Into You. I only know because my little wife bounces up and down excitedly and says “It’s the Mac guy!!” whenever she sees him.

    He was also a “correspondent” on The Daily Show for quite a while; in fact, may still be. (I’m too lazy to actually look it up.)

    Speaking of BSG, yesterday’s episode was a decent one. Last week’s was hideously boring (Ellen up to the same old Ellen shit), but this week’s with Starbuck was pretty interesting.

  40. I’m. . . agreeing. . .with Talldave???

    He’s a smart cookie on substance legality reform. Just need to get him off the addiction to war and surveillance and he’ll be fit as a fiddle.

  41. ‘Last week’s was hideously boring (Ellen up to the same old Ellen shit), but this week’s with Starbuck was pretty interesting.’

    But I hated how Starbuck had to close its store on Mars. Now Martians have to go to Uranus to get coffee.

  42. He was great in Live Free or Die Hard too. He’s also in He’s Just Not That Into You. I only know because my little wife bounces up and down excitedly and says “It’s the Mac guy!!” whenever she sees him.

    He was also a “correspondent” on The Daily Show for quite a while; in fact, may still be. (I’m too lazy to actually look it up.)

    I think you must be thinking of John Hodgman. He’s the PC one, and as such is sort of pudgy and nerdy looking, as opposed to the fit, casual cool of the mac guy. *dreams*

  43. Well, I believe the Lord must love the plain people because He has made so many of them.

    [kevrob, in my day, plain was a euphemism for ugly, an attribute for which I was oft chided as unbefitting public life.]

  44. So I’m pretty convinced now that Starbuck’s daddy was Daniel. Anyone else?

  45. Oh yeah, Lincoln was an ugly mofo, they would never let him on TV today…

  46. So I’m pretty convinced now that Starbuck’s daddy was Daniel. Anyone else?

    It sort of makes sense. In a sorta sort of way.

    Personally, I think it’s gonna be like when Daniel was corrupted, there were shenanigans with the downloading protocol such that Daniel’s personality got downloaded into Starbuck. Or her father. Or something.

  47. Republicans are the ones who set the standard that spending is a form of patriotism. Obviously, any government that is trying to improve the economy will promote that idea. It’s hardly unexpected, or controversial.

    Of course, none of that matters because I’ll spend, or save whatever the hell I want to, for whatever reason I want to. Although, I will admit that Americans spend like bored housewives.

    Outside of that, I pity any individual who forgoes the present, in order to secure a future that won’t be that much different.

  48. Wow. I know it’s bad when I pretty much agree with Famous Mortimer.

  49. Abe, did I misquote you?

    There’s always:

    If god did not want them sheared he would not have made them sheep. – Calvera, in The Magnificent Seven

    Kevin

  50. “Newshutz” notes that “FDR does deserve some credit for repeal of prohibition, and thus the lower crime rate.”

    Since Radley credits all of the drop in crime to the repeal of Prohibition, I’d say FDR deserves all the credit, presuming, that is, the Radley’s analysis is correct.

  51. Alan – FDR repealed prohibition by passing the 21st amendment by himself? Wow, you learn something new every day.

  52. Credit FDR with imposing Federal marijuana prohibition. He signed the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937.

  53. FDR: supported ending alcohol prohibition in order to gain a new revenue source for Big Government.

    FDR: supported marijuana prohibition.

    Nope, still not a libertarian bone in his body.

  54. “Virtues of poverty”? WTF???

    I’ve *been* poor (when I was a kid), thank you very much, and believe me, there’s nothing virtuous about being so hungry you faint from hypoglycemia. Though I have to say, determination to never let my kid be that hungry and to never have to accept government aid has made me a hard worker. That’s not virtue – that’s survival.

    Maybe Gerson needs to experience true poverty first-hand and see just how “virtuous” he feels then. Asshole.

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