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.