The First Universal Nation, by Ben J. Wattenberg
Several years ago Irving Kristol promulgated the “Yes, but” principle of American journalism. The credo of contemporary journalists, wrote Kristol, is that all official reports are suspect, and that upbeat reports are twice suspect. Therefore, in the unlikely circumstance that a good-news story leads the network evening news—say, a government report of a drop in the national unemployment rate—joy will be instantly darkened by a second lead, “but joblessness in the Rust Belt remains at record levels,” and the broadcast will likely conclude with a sequence depicting unemployment lines in Rockport or Dearborn.
For 20 years or more, it has been Ben Wattenberg’s journalistic vocation to turn Kristol’s “Yes, but” rule on its head. Let some bad-news tale capture the headlines, say of rising poverty or failing education, of environmental damnation or American decline, and one can count on Wattenberg, statistics in hand, to blow away the false or misleading inference. Are high-school dropout rates excessive? Yes, but they happen, read my tables, to be the lowest in history. Is there a record number of blacks in prison? Yes, but simultaneously there are record numbers of blacks in college, in fact nearly ten times as many. Are foul air and soil worrisome health hazards? Yes, but life expectancy keeps advancing and age-adjusted morbidity keeps falling. Has Japan, Inc. become the world’s number-one industrial country? Yes, but a plummeting birth rate and insurmountable barriers to immigration will ultimately devitalize its labor force. And wait until Japan’s next generation aggressively demands public resources to upgrade a Dickensian infrastructure and housing-space densities that would have given pause to Jacob Riis.
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