The American Paradox: Spiritual Hunger in an Age of Plenty by David G. Myers. Yale Univ. Press, 414 pages, $29.95 and The Loss of Happiness in Market Democracies by Robert G. Lane. Yale Univ. Press, 465 pages, $35.00
September 11, 2000        

Over the portal of modernity is written Kant’s famous definition: “What is Enlightenment? It is humankind’s emergence from its self-imposed childhood.” But that inspiring metaphor has a sobering implication. What follows childhood, after all, is adolescence; and folklore and social science agree that, whatever its attractions, this is also the most turbulent, violent, and unhappy stage of life. If Kant’s metaphor holds, humankind ought to be suffering some colossal growing pains around now.

Well, we are. In the developed countries, it’s true, more people are rich than ever before – science, democracy, and capitalism have kept their promise. But more people are unhappy, too, at least by some measures, and unhappy in new ways. To simplify grandly: the traditional – indeed, immemorial – sources of unhappiness were scarcity and constraint; now, for the first time on a large scale, overstimulation and the erosion of constraint (i.e., of social bonds, which are inseparable from constraints) are also sources of unhappiness. This is not a new idea; Durkheim and Weber first conceived it and more or less founded sociology on it. But as the social consequences of modernity broaden and ramify, fresh descriptions and analyses are required of social scientists. Several such works have recently appeared, most notably Francis Fukuyama’s The Great Disruption and Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone, as well as two less bold and brilliant but nonetheless valuable studies of contemporary American malaise, David Myers’ The American Paradox and Robert Lane’s The Loss of Happiness in Market Democracies.

Their common theme is that the way we live now has its costs. The legitimation of divorce, cohabitation, and single parenthood; the universal availability of contraception; the economic independence of women; the commodification of child care, elder care, and other personal services; the proliferation of consumer choice; the diversification of media; the superabundance of information; the increase of residential and occupational mobility; the displacement of loyalty and personal influence by merit and competition in the workplace; the decline of party identification and patronage; the delegitimation of tradition and hierarchy, familism and governmental paternalism; and in general, the increasing prevalence of individual autonomy and economic rationality in more and more spheres of life: these are all goods. But not unmixed goods. The awkward truth appears to be that constraints are also supports, choices are also stresses, and breadth of experience may sometimes be the enemy of depth.

The data on our current “social recession” (Myers’ term) are familiar, but it is useful to have them fully and clearly set out in the two books under review. Since 1960, the divorce rate has doubled. Cohabitation is seven times more frequent. Four out of 10 ninth-graders and 7 out of 10 high-school seniors report having had sexual intercourse. The average age of first marriage for men has increased from 23 to 27 and for women from 20 to 25. Births to unmarried teens have quadrupled; births to all unmarried parents have sextupled. The proportion of children not living with two parents has tripled. The number of children living with a never-married mother has increased by a factor of 13. Forty percent of all children do not live with their biological fathers.

Hours per week parents spend with children has decreased by nearly half (30 to 17). The teenage suicide rate has tripled. The rate of violent crime has quadrupled; the rate of juvenile violent crime has septupled. Twelve million people, including 3 million teenagers, contract sexually transmitted diseases each year. Average television-watching hours per household have increased 40 percent; average SAT scores have declined 50 points. The proportion of survey respondents agreeing that “most people can be trusted” dropped 40%, while the number of those asserting that “you can’t be too careful in dealing with people” rose 50%. And although personal income has more than doubled, the proportion of Americans calling themselves “pretty well off financially” has dropped 40% and “very happy” has dropped 15%, while the incidence of depression is, depending on the estimate, three to ten times greater.

So far, just trends. But there are correlations in the data, too. Married people are happier and healthier than divorced or unmarried people. People are more likely to stay married if they are religious, well educated, grew up in a two-parent home, married after age 20, and married as virgins. Compared with married couples, cohabiting couples enjoy sex less, are more often unfaithful, and (if they eventually marry) are more likely to divorce.

And then there’s the root of (not all, but much) developmental evil: father-absence. Seven out of ten delinquents are from father-absent homes. Teenage boys from such homes are three times as likely to be incarcerated by age 30; for each additional year spent in a home without two parents, the risk of incarceration increases by 5%. Children from single-parent homes are more likely to be abused, to drop out of school, and (by a factor of five) to be poor. The presence of step-parents improves the numbers a little, but not much. Overall, the nonmarital birth rate predicts a society’s violent crime rate with striking accuracy.

Even the most expertly parsed data are not self-interpreting, of course. Myers and Lane have rather different interpretive styles: the former analytical and hortatory, very ready to propose voluntary or legislative remedies; the latter abstract and analytical, rarely venturing more than a tentative suggestion. Myers, a social psychologist, emphasizes culture and values; Lane, a political scientist, emphasizes institutions and systems.

Both emphasize that poverty is not the prime cause of our “social recession.” Myers forcefully criticizes economic inequality in contemporary America, advocating increased progressivity and a ceiling on executive compensation. More cautiously, Lane concludes that “by increasing unemployment to control inflation we are apparently increasing misery for no direct (though possibly some indirect) gain in well-being.” For the most part, however, both books are less concerned with injustice or exploitation than with individualism and its unintended consequences.

The most obvious of these is marital instability. Myers quotes the historian Lawrence Stone: “The scale of marital breakdowns in the West since 1960 has no historical precedent … . There has been nothing like it for the last 2000 years, and probably longer.” The American Paradox thoroughly documents the effects of this change and offers many sensible suggestions for coping with it, such as mandating parental leave and flextime, indexing the dependent exemption to inflation, adjusting tax rates on married couples’ income, reforming divorce laws, automating child-support payments, and directly subsidizing two-parent families in various ways. He also makes a plausible, nonsectarian case for teaching virtue in the public schools.

As for the causes of the marriage crisis, Myers wisely recognizes that they go beyond mere selfishness or shallow ideals of “personal growth” to include urbanization and the disappearance of neighborhoods, the changing nature of work and the resulting economic progress of women, the declining efficacy of religious sanctions, the sexualization of advertising and entertainment, and of course, the wider availability of contraceptive technology. Individualism stands upon a vast historical scaffolding.

Lane describes a different portion of the scaffolding. In a long and subtle (sometimes excessively subtle) analysis of the incentive structure of market culture, he shows that the main sources of happiness (“intrinsic work enjoyment, family solidarity, social inclusion, sociability at the workplace”) and unhappiness (chronic financial insecurity, overwork, etc.) are “externalities”: matters respecting which markets are, in their normal workings, indifferent. “It does not pay,” he concludes, “to devote resources to benefits accruing to workers but not to the firm’s net income.”

The consequences of all this elicit from Lane a rare burst of eloquence. “There is a kind of famine of warm interpersonal relations, of easy-to-reach neighbors, of encircling, inclusive memberships, and of solidary family life … . For people lacking in social support of this kind, unemployment has more serious effects, illnesses are more deadly, disappointment with one’s children is harder to bear, bouts of depression last longer, and frustration and failed expectations of all kinds are more traumatic.” Valuing intimacy more, income and power less, would counter this “loss of happiness.” But how to bring that about – how to promote companionship rather than economic growth or procedural equality as a societal norm? Lane is chary of suggestions, pleading only that other social scientists give the matter more attention.

Statistically, the social recession has levelled off since the mid-1990s, though it’s not clear why. What are our long-term prospects? Not everyone gracefully outlives his or her growing pains; some adolescents do go haywire, after all. It doesn’t seem altogether impossible that humankind – or at any rate, American society – will go haywire. Not convulsively, perhaps, but just drifting into a psychic minimalism. Michael Walzer has imagined the nightmarish result of “individualism with a vengeance” and of an equally untrammeled skepticism and hedonism: “a human being thoroughly divorced, freed of parents, spouse, and children, watching pornographic performances in some dark theater, joining (it may be his only membership) this or that odd cult, which he will probably leave in a month or two for one still odder … dissociated, passive, lonely, ultimately featureless.” This is not what emancipation was supposed to look like.

Doubt and freedom are sacred to us since the Enlightenment, and rightly. Whatever bonds and beliefs we hope to ground community on must be able to withstand all criticisms and temptations. Are there any such grounds? Myers recommends a nondoctrinaire theism (“leaving theologians and atheists to duke it out over the ancient what-is-truth question …”), but it is practically contentless. Lane looks wistfully to social science for “a better theory of measured (and not just inferred) utility.” That sounds to me like a straw in the hurricane of consumer marketing and global competition.

Let’s hope for a prophet. As it happens, my favorite prophet, D. H. Lawrence, has some apposite words. “Man has a double set of desires, the shallow and the profound, the personal, superficial, temporary desires, and the inner, impersonal, great desires that are fulfilled in long periods of time. The desires of the moment are easy to recognize, but the other ones, the deeper ones, are difficult. It is the business of our Chief Thinkers to tell us of our deeper desires, not to keep shrilling our little desires in our ears.”

Myers and Lane (along with Putnam, Fukuyama, and the late Christopher Lasch, another great 20th-century prophet) have done what Chief Thinkers ought to do. But when one contemplates the multitude of opposing voices – the market, TV and the movies, popular music, the advertising industry and, increasingly, the Internet – all ceaselessly shrilling our little desires in our ears, it’s hard to be optimistic.