Commentary Magazine


The First Universal Nation, by Ben J. Wattenberg

An American Century?

The first Universal Nation.
By Ben J. Wattenberg.
The Free Press. 418 pp. $22.95.

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.

This nemesis of the crisis-monger entered his special vocation peaceably enough in 1965 with a popular and uncontroversial gloss on the 1960 census, This U.S.A. (in collaboration with Richard Scammon, then director of the Census Bureau). Not until The Real America (1974), in which a flight of statistical barbs was aimed at prickly political and policy issues, did Wattenberg’s gladiatorial style fully emerge. It was there he exhibited his extraordinary talent at mobilizing from the recesses of governmental agencies, academia, and think tanks whole platoons and regiments of socioeconomic data, arrayed to lay low the untruths, and to round out the half-truths, of misguided or “politically correct” experts with well-grooved channels to a compliant press.

One of the more memorable offerings in that volume resurrected the “black family in crisis” thesis, earlier formulated by Daniel P. Moynihan. Applying richer and more detailed data than were hitherto available, Wattenberg demonstrated that for married couples the differential in black-white income had significantly narrowed, and conspicuously so for younger couples who came to maturity after the civil-rights revolution; indeed, young black couples with a college education had entirely wiped out the gap. He reported, too, the burgeoning number of blacks achieving elected office, more than a few in jurisdictions with white majorities. So much for the claims of intractable poverty and unabated discrimination. And, turning from his Left to smite the Right, so much too for pronouncements that government social programs were inherently wasteful or perversely harmful. (To this day Wattenberg is a loyal adherent of Lyndon B. Johnson, Hubert Humphrey, and Henry Jackson.)

The title of Wattenberg’s next big book, The Good News Is the Bad News Is Wrong (1984), epitomized his inveterate preoccupation. Summing up evidential numbers from researchers and survey polls, Wattenberg argued that if it was not quite morning in America—Reagan’s victory had been achieved without benefit of Wattenberg’s vote—neither was it exactly nighttime.

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Then, in 1987, in a startling reversal of character, Wattenberg published The Birth Dearth. Having earlier swung a steel ball at the edifice of chilling projections of an apocalyptic population explosion, now he warned at high pitch of a demographic debacle in the making. What disturbed Wattenberg were the (to him) irrefutable signs that the nations of the first world were condemning themselves to diminished, graying, and therefore enfeebled populations, with disastrous consequences for domestic and foreign policy. In developed countries, and notably in Japan and Europe, total fertility rates had fallen below the replacement level of 2.1 children per woman’s lifetime. By contrast, the fertility rates of developing countries, though declining, were multiples of those in the West. And while the U.S. was ahead of Europe and Japan, that merely intimated a moderately delayed Armageddon.

Now in The Universal Nation Wattenberg has reverted to type: discarding the skies-are-falling mode, he argues that if all is not yet right with global demographics, it will be with America’s. By his lights, the U.S. is well on its way to becoming a demographic powerhouse, quantitatively to a degree, qualitatively for certain. We are becoming the first polity in history to encompass within its borders a cross-section of the entire world, a universe compressed within a republic of 50 states.

Wattenberg’s regained optimism—his new book heralds the dawn of an American century—is animated not only by reconsidered population trends but also by political and economic events. A few words about the former. Detailed analyses of U.S. fertility data indicate that we are unmistakably above the replacement rate, if not securely so. Immigration levels are coursing up, not down, contrary to the expectations of Congress when in 1986 it imposed heavy sanctions on the employment of illegal aliens. Moreover, on top of the already high rates of entry under existing formulas, Congress recently enacted generous provisions that will raise total admissions close to the century’s peak while tripling the flow of the educated, the skilled, and the financially competent.

Thus, not only a rising population but improved quality in the labor force—and by extension in the performance of the economy—is assured deep into the 21st century. Furthermore, America’s generations of immigrants, new and old, are enthusiastically mingling. Outmarriage rates—consanguinity across ethnic categories—are relatively high for most groups other than blacks, and are steadily increasing for each successive generation. The outmarriage rate for Asians across racial lines is approaching the respective outmarriage rates of Catholics and Jews across religious lines. Wattenberg is plainly impatient with pronouncements about the unmeltable ethnics. The melting pot is at high heat, and ethnographers are delinquent in refusing to accord as much weight to the homogenized soup that fills the stewpot as to the dwindling masses of self-identifying melt-resistant ingredients. From all that demographic mixing Wattenberg draws much satisfaction, stout in the belief that America will grow stronger in the measure to which our Founding Fathers’ motto, E Pluribus Unum, attains reality.

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Unfortunately, Wattenberg’s eponymous term, “First Universal Nation,” is no model of lucidity, and his terse explication of that term does not help matters: “We are the first universal nation. ‘First’ as in the first one, ‘first’ as in ‘number one.’ And ‘universal’ within our borders and globally.” My main difficulty, however, is not with the locution’s clarity but with its substantiation.

I confess to a chronic uneasiness with transcendental ideas that presume to pierce the impenetrable veil of the future, and especially with those that purport to encapsulate the immense unknowabilities of the world into an epigrammatic sound bite. These confections tend to have a fleeting shelf life: witness the fate of the Decline of the West, Secular Stagnation, the Post-Industrial Society, Nuclear Winter, Our Plundered Planet, the End of History, Imperial Overstretch, and, ah yes, the Birth Dearth. Indeed, since the discomfiting of prognosticators has been, and remains, Wattenberg’s own favorite sport, one is a little surprised by this confident venture into futurology. As a demographic interpreter Wattenberg has undisputed competence (though, as we have seen, not invincible standing—no one has). As an author of global scenarios for the next century he is no more credible than the next mortal.

Aside from conceptual overkill and the perils of excited prediction, The First Universal Nation fails to provide a persuasive or even sustained argument for its towering thesis. Wattenberg’s explication is confined to a loosely developed chapter of fewer than twenty pages. He bases his case for America-as-universe on two contentions—demographic and geopolitical. Both suffer from an excess of hyperbole.

America’s population, though growing steadily more polyethnic, does not constitute anything resembling a true cross-section of the globe’s population. Nor will it do so as far ahead as any demographer can peer. America is 75 to 80 percent white in a world that is 75 to 80 percent nonwhite. To be sure, the growth rate of America’s Asians is extraordinary, but it is measured from a very slender base. After a 25-year rising tide of immigration, Asian-Americans currently account for only 3 percent of the U.S. population and are not projected, in a world that is half-Asian, to pass 6 percent until well into the next century. In asserting that America is the demographic universe writ small, Wattenberg is asking us to ignore proportionalities and focus solely on rapidly proliferating racial and ethnic diversity. On that score, America achieved universality a century or more ago. By then, every racial and ethnic group from every nation and continent had a recognized presence here. Moreover, by Wattenberg’s loose test of universality other nations are entitled to the designation, among them Brazil, Canada, and Israel, each a conspicuously multiracial, multiethnic society and becoming more so daily.

Wattenberg’s second case for the nation-as-universe—the geopolitical—has roots in another Framers’ motto, Novus Ordo Seclorum, a new order of the ages. With the collapse of the Soviet Union as a viable political and economic system, and with the triumph everywhere of market capitalism over statist socialism, a new world order is shaping up, bringing radical rearrangements in the correlation of forces (to salvage something from the Communist lexicon). The world according to Wattenberg is no longer bipolar but unipolar, and America is the pole, the sole and unchallenged superpower.

I have even more difficulty with this argument than with the demographic. The Soviet Union may be a collapsing empire and a down-ward-spiraling polity, but who seriously believes it is a failed military power? As one U.S. commander lately avowed, no country possessing a surfeit of nuclear “ordnance” capable within 30 minutes of reducing America to a moonscape can be safely stripped of its superpower epaulets.

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Beyond its brief and inadequate thematic chapter, the remainder of this 400-page book is a pastiche of more than a hundred of Wattenberg’s syndicated newspaper columns, published from the early 80’s through mid-1990. The topics range over the environment, presidential elections, definitions of poverty, and much more. Most show Wattenberg at his debunking best, but with a few exceptions these discrete musings bear only obliquely on his central theme and build no solid scaffold in its support.

Wattenberg is always fun to read, and the positive nature of his reporting, amid a journalistic culture of nattering negativism, has inestimable scarcity value. But the rewards of the book taken as a whole owe more to the cut and thrust of a miscellany of public-policy jousts, here commodiously and conveniently reprinted, than to the epochal event connoted in its grandiloquent title.

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