The Family That Prays Together, Starves Together

Friday, February 27th, 2009

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.

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18 Responses to “The Family That Prays Together, Starves Together”

  1. #1 |  Helmut O' Hooligan | 

    Perhaps next time Mr. Gerson will just come out and advocate self-flagellation and th wearing of sack cloth.

  2. #2 |  chance | 

    I’m still partial to Steven Levitt’s observation in Freakonomics that part of the crime drop of the 90s was strongly correlated with the availability of abortions due to Roe v Wade. Causation still hasn’t been proven, but the argument makes intuitive sense (even if it is ethically repugnant to many, its a pretty logical argument).

  3. #3 |  solinox | 

    “Gerson’s column from last week lectures us on the virtues of poverty…”

    Who is John Galt?

  4. #4 |  Dave Krueger | 

    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.

    Recession is Capitalism’s way of telling us that we’re strayed too far from Capitalism.

  5. #5 |  T. Ossit | 

    @ #2 chance

    Levitt is indeed a very clever man, but his association of the availability of abortion with a declining crime rate is pretty full of holes. It did sell a lot of books, though. Lott did a good job of pointing out how the data could easily support the opposite conclusion. Additionally, Levitt’s attempt to link Romania’s revolution to the fact that abortion was illegal there is beyond ludicrous. Why then did East Germany also change governments when that country had abortion on demand and rapid no-fault divorces? Why didn’t the Republic of Ireland (no abortion) collapse of hoards of unwanted children grew up and challenged the status quo? Why did crime in the UK continue to increase despite the availability of abortion? Oh, that’s right, because Levitt was talking out of his hat on that one. Maybe, just maybe, the fact that the Red Army wasn’t going to march in and shoot demonstrators anymore was the reason for the changes in the GDR and Romania.

  6. #6 |  T. Ossit | 

    Regarding the research by Christopher Ruhm that the article mentions, Dr. Ruhm’s research doesn’t say that recessions are necessarily good for health. He found that mild recessions have some health benefits (people cut back on drinking and smoking and some exercise more as they hunt for a new job), but severe or prolonged recessions cause more harm than good. The second part is what one would expect; his findings that mild recessions have short-term health benefits were what made his research interesting, since it was unanticipated.

  7. #7 |  chance | 

    I just read Lott’s paper – it isn’t very convincing compared to the Levitt-Donahue paper. I think I understand how he is trying to refute the hypothesis, but the testable predictions in Lott’s paper seem forced, and some of the assumptions do not seem reasonable (but I’m a layman, I admit). Was Lott’s paper ever finally published in a peer reviewed journal? Not saying that an unpublished paper can’t have valuable insights, but the fact that it kicked around for several years could suggest that significant criticisms had not been adequately addressed by the authors.

    Here is Levitt’s response to the criticisms from Lott and Sailor:

    To avoid an abortion thread hijick, I’ll just stop with my comments.

  8. #8 |  Bronwyn | 

    If Gerson wants some Grace through an unexpected door, I’m sure someone would be willing to oblige him.

    What a pretentious twit.

  9. #9 |  ice9 | 

    Spot on, especially the pithy demolition of Gerson’s smarmy prose style. The consistency of ethos/fail among WBush folks is astonishing. From Rove’s smiling, utterly comfortable hypocrisies to Gonzalez’ earnest determination to participate in his own indictments (oh, and Harriet Miers–holy crap what a gift to humorist progressives everywhere…) these people simply have no idea who they are. I’m especially charmed by GWB spending what, 45 minutes cutting brush in the Texas sunshine. The irony of a pampered class of neocons opining on what regular folks ought to do. Achh, I have no words. Ok, this: Rush Limbaugh avoided service in Vietnam because he had a boil on his ass. That should hurt. How come it doesn’t?

    Gerson is a tool. I’d like him to spend three days in a normal American high school peddling that tripe.


  10. #10 |  Aresen | 


    You are not arguing fairly with Mr Gerson.

    You are using facts.

  11. #11 |  To Anglicise this | 

    […] Think roughly Polly Toynbee’s grasp of economics and, erm, Polly Toynbee’s of individual liberty. […]

  12. #12 |  Judi | 

    Helmut, you forgot the ASHES!

    Recession and depression makes desperate people.

    Desperate needs are cause for desperate measures from robbing Peter to pay Paul and whacking your neighbor for food to feed your family.

    I love the line…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.”

    Hell if I am anymore awake than I already am, I’ll be ‘nekkid’ (trust me, it would NOT be a Kodak moment) before long, icing Peter, Paul and the neighbor!

    If that’s the case, let me sleep…better yet, a nice long coma might just do the trick.

  13. #13 |  Judi | 

    Sounds like Gerson is trying to put Danielle Steele outta business with his ‘romantic meanderings’.

  14. #14 |  Boyd Durkin | 

    And so it begins. Rationalize everything. Povert is good. Down is up. The state keeps the sheeples asleep.

  15. #15 |  Z | 

    I assume the Gersons ride the rails in the midwest while eating pork and beans (one can only- to share) and playing dominos with scrap paper by candle light?

  16. #16 |  Greg N. | 

    Tell Gerson that if he wants his family to come together, I’d be happy to help by taking a healthy percentage of his paycheck.

  17. #17 |  The Agitator » Blog Archive » Saturday Links | 

    […] pays lip service to concept of individualism anymore. And a good faction of the right, including much of its commentariat, is out and out hostile to commerce and […]

  18. #18 |  The Agitator » Blog Archive » Morning Links | 

    […] recessions aren’t so bad, because they tend to mitigate income inequality? Come on. I know Michael Gerson’s mirror image is out there […]